In April of 1968, as I was graduating from boarding school near Baltimore, the city went up in flames, as protesters raged over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was only dimly aware of that turmoil.
At Hannah More Academy - the oldest Episcopal Girls’ school in the country - we seniors were preoccupied, choosing long white dresses and red roses for commencement. Unlike me, most of the students came from south of the Mason Dixon-line. In plaid skirts and blue blazers, we were uniformed - and largely uninformed about urban tumult only a short drive from our serene, ivy-covered campus.
We had no cars, watched no television, listened mostly to Motown music on the radio, and - even in history class - generally avoided political debate. As Baltimore burned, I was studying for my final exam in Latin IV.
At college in Vermont, I became somewhat, and, I have to admit, selectively militant. With friends being drafted and sent against their wishes to Vietnam, many of us demonstrated against what we saw as needless carnage overseas. But in our tie-dyed, largely white anti-war marches, we – at least, I – failed to ally ourselves fully with black activists struggling, in their own movement, in our country, for equal rights and respect.
That struggle continues. After the recent clashes in Charlottesville, I heard people wonder why taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee triggered such radical responses. Weren’t there worse guys in history, they asked?
But racism persists, and for many people, monuments to slave-owner secessionists are painful reminders of it. At a time when our country is dangerously divided, I’ve been worrying that the rift over monuments will usher in a new wave of violence in the streets.
So I was surprised and pleased to hear that Baltimore has taken a different course. On a recent morning before dawn, by order of its African American mayor, who cited public safety, four monuments to Confederate heroes were removed amid peaceful, cheerful celebration.
Some historians would rather let such icons stand as reminders of a history we should not repeat. But I was happy to see, on video, statues of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson leaving the city under police escort, possibly to be relocated in Confederate cemeteries.
I suppose they might still face an alt-right backlash - but for now, bravo Baltimore.