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Academy meal spurs debate

The Baltimore Sun

An attempt by the Naval Academy to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. this week by serving fried chicken, greens and cornbread in the midshipmen's dining hall sparked a debate on the Annapolis campus about racial sensitivity.

On Tuesday, the academy served those items along with mashed potatoes, pie and lemonade as clips of King speeches were broadcast in King Hall, named after an academy graduate. The meal was served Tuesday because classes were not held during the holiday honoring the civil rights leader.

An academy spokesman said the meal followed events at the academy and other Navy institutions that honored Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month and St. Patrick's Day by serving cultural foods.

"The idea behind it is that it's a traditional Southern meal," said the spokesman, Cmdr. Ed Austin, adding, "It's a fairly common thing throughout the fleet to do special meals on special occasions."

But postings on GoMids.com, which includes a message board used by midshipmen and others affiliated with the academy, indicate some were offended by the attempt to honor King.

"I thought we were well past these stereotypes!!" one contributor wrote. The posting was part of a string of comments on Tuesday's lunch. By yesterday, the string had been removed from the site.

Austin said the meal was planned by the academy's director of food services, who is African-American, and her staff.

In September, midshipmen were served beef fajitas, flour tortillas and Spanish rice for Hispanic Heritage Month, he said.

Austin said he knew of no complaints made to officers at the academy about the menu, adding that the academy's food staff has received nothing but positive feedback about the lunch event.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Jim Jackson, an academy graduate who is black, cautioned against being overly sensitive. He recalled starting a soul band with fellow Mids in the early 1970s.

"We were having to take tiny steps forward to introduce things that were going to reflect African-American culture," said Jackson, a guidance counselor at Anne Arundel Community College. "What now may seem as trivial or insensitive a thing to have as soul food would have been much welcomed."

Carl O. Snowden, who heads the Office for Civil Rights in the Maryland attorney general's office, said he found nothing offensive about the academy's actions, adding that it appeared to be a genuine attempt to honor King. He noted that the academy's new superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, has made it a goal to increase minority recruiting and reach out to the African-American community.

But Snowden added that he could see why some might find the lunch honoring King offensive.

"It seems to me they might want to rethink that as a means of honoring him, simply because it would be open to misinterpretation," he said.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Bradley Olson and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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