Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In the county, racism cast different shadows

The anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination brings changes into focus

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Associated Press
Aug. 28, 1963: Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to the world from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Less than five years later, he was gone. ‘‘We started going in the wrong direction,” said Marvin L. ‘‘Doc” Cheatham Sr., president of the NAACP’s Baltimore city branch. ‘‘We had lost the shining star that led us.”
As a young girl growing up in Bethesda, Judy Putman was one of only a few black students in her school, but she knew so little of discrimination she had to have it explained to her.

For Roscoe Nix, however, Montgomery County was a place where he could not sit with white friends at restaurants until he led boycotts to desegregate them.

And as a young man new to the county, Isiah Leggett faced a subtler strain of racism than he experienced where he grew up in the South.

‘‘In the South, you got what you got. A no meant no,” said Leggett, now county executive. ‘‘But the subtlety of things here resulted in conversations where a person said no in every way possible but saying no.”

Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, his legacy and death still reverberate.

The civil rights movement had begun before he joined it and continued after he died, but his speeches and marches created opportunities for African Americans that had not existed before.

Yet his death also sparked riots in Baltimore, Washington and other cities.

‘‘Some of the progress black folks thought they made had come to a halt,” said Wilma Bell, an African American and fourth-generation resident of Rockville’s historically black Lincoln Park neighborhood. ‘‘Dr. Martin Luther King was very much part of the civil rights movement, and we all benefited. Losing him cast a shadow.”

‘‘We were plastered to our TVs [following news coverage] until the actual riots started,” said Marvin L. ‘‘Doc” Cheatham Sr., president of the NAACP’s Baltimore city branch.

Then a senior in high school, Cheatham saw the smoke of burning buildings in the distance from his home on the 1600 block of Appleton Street in Baltimore. His neighborhood saw some businesses broken into and some windows smashed, but he did not see the actual rioting. He did see National Guard soldiers fill the street a block from his home.

‘‘We started going in the wrong direction,” he said. ‘‘We had lost the shining star that led us.”

The riots brushed Maryland suburbs slightly.

Post-World War II migration out of the cities and the civil rights movement had long since begun to reshape the racial demographics of Washington’s prosperous northern suburbs by the time violence inflamed downtown D.C.

‘‘After the civil rights movement, opportunities opened up, so middle-class and established working-class blacks moved out, leaving behind what [Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski] called ZIP codes of pathology,” said Christopher J. Hewitt, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who teaches about class, social inequality and violence.

Hewitt moved to Glen Echo after the 1968 riots, but he has heard from longtime Washington-area residents that traveling from the suburbs into downtown Washington to shop became off-limits. Suburbs may have gotten a boost as commercial centers during that time, he said.

‘‘White flight” — middle- and working-class whites leaving the inner city — and suburbanization were already a reality by 1968, Hewitt said. But the riots may have changed the migration pattern too, he said. One possible reason, he said referencing a former student’s research, is that everyday crime ‘‘rocketed up” in the riots’ aftermath.

‘A dream’

When she was 10, Putman went with her family to see Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his ‘‘I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

‘‘The thing that really got to me as a child was when he talked about how his kids couldn’t play with white children,” said Putman, now 54 with three grown children and five grandchildren of her own. ‘‘When we got home, my parents had to explain it to me.”

Putman had rarely experienced the overt racism King described. She and her older brother and sister had many white friends, and she was the center of attention at school when she came to class wearing a button from the March on her jacket.

Putman experienced some of the discrimination King had preached against during summer visits to Wakefield, the segregated town in rural Virginia where her parents grew up. The family moved to Montgomery County in 1959.

‘‘Living in Bethesda and going down there, I mean, it was so different,” Putman said of Wakefield.

When King was assassinated, Putman’s class spent the entire day talking about what had happened, and her parents continued the conversation at home.

‘‘I thought I was in the Twilight Zone,” she said.

Forty years later, things have changed, though there’s still a long way to go. Putman moved to a small town in South Carolina in 2002, and her youngest son, now a criminal justice major at Allegany College of Maryland, had friends of different races. He and his friends often played basketball in front of Putman’s house, and she was startled when neighbors told her he had broken the town’s color barrier.

‘‘In South Carolina, I saw fear in people’s eyes,” Putman said. ‘‘I’d like to think for my children and grandchildren, the sky’s the limit. ... [King] paved the way; we just have to walk in that road.”

Uprisings and rising up

The road has been long and progress slow.

While Putman saw little racism in Montgomery County, Nix saw plenty of it.

‘‘The county had a policy that said if you went into a restaurant to eat and if you were in the presence of whites, they would serve you,” Nix said.

Fed up, Nix led boycotts of the county’s segregated restaurants in the 1950s.

‘‘When I came to Montgomery County it was much worse than it is now,” he said.

Nix went on to parlay his civil rights struggles into electoral victories for himself and other blacks in the county. He was a pioneer in the local NAACP and was elected to a county school board seat in 1974.

At age 87, Nix has retired from the civil rights scene, but he vividly remembers fighting for school integration.

‘‘You are talking about wealthy, educated white women acting up. They used every threat possible,” he said. ‘‘Eventually, they backed away from opposition.”

When Odessa Shannon moved to the county in 1966, the racial struggles in the schools were still ongoing.

‘‘The African-American population in the county was just 4 percent at the time and not very many other minorities were here, so everything was a black⁄white issue,” said Shannon, a Washington native. ‘‘The county had desegregation through the law, but a lot of minds still hadn’t changed.”

Leggett moved to the county in 1970 after a tour in Vietnam.

‘‘Things were beginning to improve,” Leggett (D) said. ‘‘There were a lot of problems still in the school system, like busing and integration.”

Shannon became the first African-American woman to hold an elected seat in the county by winning a school board seat in 1982. Four years later, Leggett won a County Council at-large race to become the county’s first American American elected to a countywide seat. In 2006, he became the county’s first black county executive.

‘‘The county has changed for the better,” Nix said. ‘‘There is no perfect place, but if you’re asking me where I’d rather live ... I feel Montgomery County is the place to be.”

Staff Writers Audrey Dutton and Warren Parish contributed to this report.

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