Across the country Confederate statues are toppling and names of prominent figures from a racist era are coming off of buildings as a new awareness of the wrongs of the past has taken hold.
As the mayor of Greenbelt, Colin Byrd is taking on some of the issues that have prompted a push for accountability and reconciliation, including police reform efforts.
But he is not new to Black activism and standing up for injustice. Some might recall when five years ago Mr. Byrd was at the center of an effort by a group of student organizations to change the name of Byrd Stadium, the University of Maryland football arena in College Park once named after a major proponent of segregation. They won at their efforts and the Terps now play in Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
I reached out to Mr. Byrd, who was elected as his hometown’s youngest ever mayor last year, to get his thoughts on the modern day civil rights fight, particularly the mass removal of symbols off of America’s buildings and from its public places. Something that didn’t come with such ease when he was pushing for it.
As a student at the University of Maryland, Mr. Byrd felt moved to seek the removal of the name of H.C. “Curley” Byrd (no relation) from one of the most prominent perches on campus because it was an affront to all students, but particularly Black students who were reminded everyday they were once not welcome on campus.
“Curley” Byrd had served as the university’s president for nearly two decades until 1954 when he actively kept Black students from enrolling into the state’s flagship campus and supported “separate but equal” policies.
He refused to let the late Congressman Parren J. Mitchell, who sued to be admitted to the university’s graduate school in 1950, attend classes on campus. Instead he issued an order for instruction in Baltimore. Mitchell went on to earn his master’s degree from the school but only because a court granted him admission.
Mr. Byrd supports such efforts for more removal of offensive names and images. After all, symbols send powerful messages about who society should look up to. But he also doesn’t want to see a “performance of wokeness” where symbols are moved in substitution for other types of substantive policy and other change around issues such as police brutality and the wealth gap faced by African American people.
“Practically speaking there is going to be a lot of buildings renamed if you go after everyone who had anything on their record in the 1700s or 1800s that wasn’t supportive of Black folks,” Mr. Byrd said.
Mr. Byrd said his decision to push for renaming Byrd Stadium took a lot of thought and also came down to some personal reasons, including the sharing of the last name even though he wasn’t related to the former university president, and the fact that his dad attended the university as well. Also, Curley Byrd’s stance on segregation was so strong: “In ’54 he was running for governor pushing for segregation after Brown vs. Board of Education. Those details are not insignificant when you start to say what this message is we are sending.”
Some might find some of Mr. Byrd’s stances on race surprising. For one, he considers himself a Christian and believes in forgiveness.
“If somebody did anything racially hostile to African Americans it doesn’t mean they are totally banished from some honor on a building or statue,” he said. “One of the complications is that I am a Christian. Part of my thinking about this is I actually do have a sensibility of forgiveness, for empathy and the understanding of different time periods.”
He also is not necessarily for the forced removal of statues, or “ripping them down.” He would rather see a public debate and that removal come with some kind of understanding and context. And how about memorializing people who were on the right side of history?
“I would prefer to see the activists win the argument so people of power hear the argument and are convinced,” he said. “This is a less hostile way, is more democratic and creates more understanding.”
But he also knows lawmakers don’t always listen.
“There is blame to go around,” he said. “It is not the activists’ faults when they get impatient. They have made their demand, and a lot of time things resort to those desperate measures because things haven’t been done. People in positions of power actually have to do something.”
That is the kind of lawmaker Mr. Byrd is trying to be as mayor of Greenbelt, where already he has taken up issues on diversity and inclusion, including revamping the sexual harassment policy and choosing not to have the city’s police force cooperate with ICE.
“I have perhaps a naive, but real sincere belief and appreciation for democracy and representative government — the idea of elected officials being responsive to people and using their own judgment in cases where people’s views (are) at odds with what is right.”