Who knew that Carroll County, where two decades ago the county commissioners refused to join a regional conversation about race relations (that all eight of the county’s municipalities had agreed to participate in, by the way), could demonstrate enlightenment on the subject — and, in the process, put Baltimore a bit to shame. And while it may be premature to declare the region’s most politically conservative county woke on civil rights, it’s not too early to give a thumb’s up to Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie and the Board of Education for engaging the community in a dialogue about whether the student dress code should ban images of the Confederate battle flag.
School systems don’t commonly single out the Confederate flag in this manner. They are more likely to have general language about offensive or racist symbols and leave it to administrators to recognize what constitutes offensiveness in what can be a changing social landscape. But Mr. Guthrie saw a potential legal challenge that needed to be addressed after the 2015 shooting in Charleston, S.C., that left nine African Americans dead, victims of a white supremacist. “I wanted to send a strong signal that symbols of hate would not be allowed in our schools,” he told the Carroll County Times. It wasn’t as if the school system had been flooded with students sporting the stars and bars on their jeans, but then came last year’s Charlottesville, Va., protests and the possibility that white supremacy was on the rise.
Now contrast this open process, this community engagement, with what happened this week in Patterson Park where a vandal spray-painted a bronze statue of children holding up the Star-Spangled Banner, a tribute to the national anthem’s Baltimore roots and a memorial that has existed on the site for more than a century. The words, “Racist Anthem,” were painted on a sidewalk nearby, an apparent reference to the third stanza of the anthem in which Francis Scott Key offers an oblique condemnation of former slaves serving for the British military noting that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” There’s also a line about how their own blood would wipe out their “foul” footsteps, but you get the idea.
That’s some pretty incendiary language but also somewhat obscure. Does anyone ever hear, let alone sing, the third stanza and then understand the reference? But more importantly, if one is going to protest the national anthem’s third stanza, why is spray painting a children’s memorial an accepted way to do it? Hint: It isn’t. Nor was it commendable when someone took similar action to a statue of Key in Bolton Hill last September.
And here’s the real irony. Baltimore has shown itself to be open to reconsidering its public monuments. It wasn’t vandalism the convinced the city to last year remove several memorials laudatory toward the Confederate cause, it was the product of a fairly lengthy review process that started in 2015 with the appointment of a commission to consider all of the city’s Confederate-related monuments. The matter was debated in the City Council, and Mayor Catherine Pugh eventually ordered that four monuments be removed. The debate was often spirited but civil. And while there were acts of vandalism then as well, spray paint decided nothing — it was a matter of the community expressing its views to its leadership and the mayor taking appropriate action.
We are skeptical the national anthem’s third stanza’s disparaging reference to runaway slaves helping the British is of great concern to the residents of this city, but it would not be unreasonable to have a dialogue about it. Baltimore’s considerable stake in the national anthem, not only from an historic perspective but an economic one given the tourism draw of Fort McHenry and other War of 1812 sites, would have to be part of the deliberations as well. If Carroll County, home of gun raffles and smart growth naysayers, can have a civil conversation about historic symbols and racism, why can’t a city that prides itself for its world-class academic institutions as well as its own role in this nation’s struggles over civil rights? As Abraham Lincoln once observed, it’s not military might (or perhaps spray cans) but public sentiment that determines the future: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.