In the summer of 1980, many of Maryland’s leading civil rights activists gathered in Annapolis to regroup. Members of the Maryland Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights were concerned about a "fragmentation of effort" over the past decade. On June 26, 1980, the committee convened a group of 272 volunteer activists, service workers, public agency staff, and elected officials for a statewide conference on civil rights and the state of the movement.1

The conference chair, Sol Del Ande Medez Eaton, a Hispanic equal employment officer from Lanham in Prince George’s County, started the day by quoting a 1979 report from the US Commission on Civil Rights acknowledging “the positive steps taken in the quest for equal opportunity” but reminding Americans of “the gap between the goals and their limited achievements.” Newton I. Steers, a white attorney from Bethesda, a former Congressman, and the co-chair (with Eaton) of the Maryland Advisory Committee, saw the gap in the case of the recent shooting of Ja-Wan McGee. McGee was an unarmed black 17-year-old shot at a pizza shop located in the 4500 block of Erdman Avenue in east Baltimore by an off-duty white police officer.2 In a morning panel on housing, participants agreed that the state’s small number of fair housing groups—including Baltimore Neighborhoods located at 319 E. 25th Street and Suburban Maryland Fair Housing located at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church (M- 31-72) in Bethesda—could not adequately address resident complaints or monitor housing discrimination. In the afternoon, a discussion among Baltimore activists lamented that “conditions haven’t really changed that much, if at all” and expressed their view “enough had been done to study the problems and the issues—what is needed now is action.”

A review of the financial and housing conditions for black households in Maryland clearly justified the frustration and concern among the conference participants. In 1950, the median income for black families in Maryland was 51% of the median income of white families. By 1980, the incomes for black families had grown—but still remained just 62% of the median for white families. Moreover, the gap between average white and black household income had actually increased by 5% since 1970. The number of Maryland residents living in poverty declined from 17.4% in 1969 to 11.2% in 1979 but, in 1979, black households still made up 40% of that group while making up 22.7% of the state’s population.3 Racial isolation, a key measure of housing segregation, had improved over the past few decades but Baltimore remained one of the 10 most segregated cities in the country in 1980. Sociologists in the 1980s coined the term "hypersegregation" to capture the extreme level of racial isolation experienced by black residents in Baltimore along with similarly segregated cities then including Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Newark, Gary (Indiana), Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and St. Louis.4

Congressman Parren J. Mitchell closed the conference in Annapolis by reflecting on the challenge of "dealing with people who believe all civil rights problems have been solved" and those "who stubbornly refuse to provide equal opportunity while claiming they have no prejudice." In the face of federal legislation that served to "directly attack civil rights progress," Congressman Mitchell told the assembled group “it gets very lonely in the Congress,” but “the fact that you speak out emboldens me to carry on.”5

A little over a month later, on August 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign with a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, declaring “I believe in states' rights," just a few miles from the site of the infamous Mississippi civil rights workers' murders in 1964. In 1988, Jerelyn Eddings, a 37-year-old black editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, observed that Reagan had been “on the wrong side of every civil-rights issue during his term in office.” During the 1980s, the Reagan administration cut the budget for the Equal Opportunity Commission, reduced the number of civil rights attorneys working for the Justice Department, and even tried to disband the US Commission on Civil Rights. The president’s record also included fighting the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, attempting to repeal the 1968 Executive Order establishing affirmative action requirements for federal contractors, and opposing the creation of a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.6

The combination of a bleak outlook for national politics and economic challenges for many black households likely contributed in a decline in financial support for the NAACP. In 1983, regional director Rev. Emmett C. Burns, suggested that the number of NAACP members in the Baltimore area dropped from around 40,000 in the late 1960s to 30,000 by 1983.7 In 1984, Enolia P. McMillan, a Govans resident, former educator, and past president of the Baltimore NAACP, became the first female president of the national NAACP. In 1986, McMillan helped the national headquarters relocate to northwest Baltimore in the former Marian Retreat House (B-5272)—a move inspired, in part, by the rising costs of maintaining the organization’s New York office. The Baltimore NAACP also moved around this time from 26 W. 25th Street to a pair rowhouses at 6 and 8 W. 26th Street purchased by the Baltimore NAACP in 1987.8 The new offices were later named after Enolia P. McMillan (who had served as president of the local chapter from 1969 to 1984).

Despite the Reagan administration’s efforts to undermine federal civil rights enforcement, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) continued to work with both the city and state government on desegregation plans in the early 1980s. Between 1976 and 1980, the OCR had repeatedly rejected the state’s plans to address racial inequality in higher education as inadequate. The state and OCR finally settled on a new agreement in 1985. However, the agreement did not fully resolve the inequality in funding for state colleges and universities. More than two decades later, in 2006, a group of alumni from the state’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—Bowie State University, Coppin State University (Baltimore), Morgan State University (Baltimore) and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (Princess Anne)—established the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education and filed suit against the Maryland Higher Education Commission, arguing that the state never fulfilled the terms of the 1985 agreement and left the state's HBCUs severely underfunded.9

Inequity in education was matched by disparities in employment. Throughout the 1980s, the unemployment rate for black Baltimoreans was significantly higher than the rate for white residents. In 1986, the year with the smallest gap between the two groups, the unemployment rate for black workers (11.8%) was still more than double the rate for white workers (5%). In May 1991, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the city’s first elected black Mayor, challenging the largely white membership of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC): "The time is past for delaying and debating the question of opening up Baltimore's development to minorities and women. Now it's time for action." Recalling President George H. W. Bush’s opposition to legislation to strengthen affirmative action programs, Schmoke explained, “It disturbs me to hear the president speak in terms that seem to imply there's no discrimination out there anymore. I think we're still fighting the evils of racism.” Schmoke urged the GBC to study the role of "minority and women businesses" in Baltimore.10

Schmoke likely spoke for many local activists who continued to fight discrimination and segregation related to housing, education, transportation, and criminal injustice. In the 1990s and 2000s, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland took on an increasingly important role in the legal fight against discrimination, often working in partnership with the Baltimore NAACP. In 1994, the [ACLU of Maryland]{.underline} filed a housing class action lawsuit against the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) known as Thomson v. HUD.11 The case took over a decade to resolve but, in January 2005, the public housing residents that were plaintiffs in the case finally won what the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund called a "precedent-setting civil rights victory" in federal district court. Judge Marvin J. Garbis found that HUD had violated federal fair housing laws by "unfairly concentrating African American public housing residents in the most impoverished, segregated areas of Baltimore City."12

Frustration over discrimination by the Baltimore police grew even greater in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1999, the Maryland state legislature responded to resident concerns over police brutality by created a Civilian Review Board but the board was reportedly "marginalized by city officials who allowed it to limp along with a single investigator for years."13 By 2005, a “zero tolerance” policy enacted by then Mayor Martin O’Malley resulted in over 100,000 arrests in a single year.

In June 2006, the ACLU of Maryland filed a lawsuit representing the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, the Baltimore City Branch of the NAACP, and several of the alleged thousands of people arrested every year “who were not and could not be prosecuted.” The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) agreed to a settlement in May 2010 requiring “significant reforms of the BPD's arrest and monitoring practices.”14 Unfortunately, the department failed to fulfill their obligations under the settlement agreement and officers continued to engage in violence and discrimination against black Baltimoreans. In 2014, the Baltimore Sun reported that the city had spent millions on court judgements and settlement agreements with over 100 people who had experienced brutality or civil rights violations at the hands of city officers since 2010.15

Direct action was also an important strategy for activists concerned about criminal injustice in Baltimore. The Baltimore Algebra Project waged a multi-year campaign against a 2008 proposal by Governor Martin O’Malley to build a new youth jail in Baltimore. Bob Moses, a veteran organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, had started the Algebra Project in 1982 and brought his unique approach to using math literacy as a tool for organizing to Baltimore in 1990. The fight against the youth jail was not the first direct action campaign led by members of the Baltimore Algebra Project. In 2008, the group occupied City Hall where members participated in a hunger strike to demand funding for youth jobs and, in 2009, fought against the proposed elimination of free bus passes for Baltimore students. Organizing around the message "No education, no life," members forced the Governor and Maryland legislature to abandon plans for the new detention facility in 2013.16

On April 12, 2015, near Gilmor Homes in Sandtown-Winchester, six Baltimore police officers arrested a 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray. Six days later, on April 18, Gray died from injuries he suffered in police custody. His death, less than a year after the mass protests over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked Baltimore’s largest ever mass protests against police violence. On the evening of Tuesday, April 21, after police released the names of the police officers involved in Gray's arrest, hundreds of Baltimoreans protested at the Western District Police Station and marched to the site of Gray’s arrest a few blocks away. The march proceeded along Mount Street, North Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue before returning to the station. Protestors confronted officers blocking Riggs Avenue and chanted "No justice, no peace, no racist police" and "Tell the truth and stop the lie, Freddie Gray didn't have to die."17 On April 25, a protest march to downtown ended in a violent conflict between protestors and police officers. Two days later, a conflict between police officers and young people around Mondawmin Mall sparked a wave of unrest resulting in damage to hundreds of properties and the arrest of hundreds of people. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake imposed a citywide curfew and Governor Larry Hogan sent National Guard troops prompting comparison to the city’s unrest in 1968.

In the weeks after the protests, the No Boundaries Coalition and Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) began working to gather information about police misconduct in west Baltimore and joined forces to form the West Baltimore Community Commission on Police Misconduct.18 In May 2015, the commission organized a meeting at Sharon Baptist Church (B-4441) to gather public testimony and, over the next several months, activists Ray Kelly and Rebecca Nagle interviewed residents at St. Peter Claver Church (B-4443) to document their experiences with the police. In March 2016, the commission released a devastating report.19 The official US Department of Justice report followed in August summarized the testimony gathered by the group:

The community recollections reveal a belief that there is racism in law enforcement, unnecessary force and verbal abuse, an “us-versus-them” attitude among police officers, a lack of positive interactions with the police, and strong feelings of recrimination, resentment, fear, and mistrust among residents.20

But, as in generations earlier, elected officials did little to address resident concerns over police violence or broader patterns of racial inequality. On May 13, 2015, the Maryland Board of Public Works, chaired by Governor Larry Hogan, approved plans for a “$30 million, 60-bed jail to house Baltimore teenagers charged as adults”—the same project that the Baltimore Algebra Project had brought to a standstill two years earlier.21 About two months later, on June 25, 2015, Hogan abruptly announced that he was cancelling the Red Line—an east–west light rail line project that had secured over $900 million in federal funding—just a year before construction was scheduled to begin. Hogan then redirected state funding for public transportation towards expanding highways in suburban and rural counties.

Before the end of the year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU of Maryland filed an administrative complaint with the US Department of Transportation Office of Civil Rights on behalf of the Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality (BRIDGE) citing the long history of inequitable transportation policy in Baltimore and Maryland. But, in July 2017, the office closed the complaint—without any explanation or response.22

The cancellation of the Red Line was a difficult blow for historically segregated west Baltimore neighborhoods that struggled under the burden of continued housing discrimination. Near the outset of the national foreclosure crisis in 2008, a report by the Reinvestment Fund (TRF) found banks were more likely to offer subprime loans to black borrowers in majority-black neighborhoods than to white borrowers or to people buying in predominantly white neighborhoods.23 In 2015, a National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) analysis of mortgage lending found “that while majority white neighborhoods are sites of robust lending activity, majority black neighborhoods are consistently excluded from lending activity.” The report concluded that this practice of modern-day redlining keeps many Baltimore neighborhoods “mired in poverty” despite the wealth of the broader Baltimore region.24

While the federal government has done little to address school segregation in Baltimore since the late 1980s, activists have recently pushed Baltimore City Public Schools and the state of Maryland to address continued inequity in facilities, funding, and outcomes for city schools’ predominantly black student population. In 2012, the Jacobs Report documented the overall poor condition of schools, estimating the cost of correcting building deficiencies and deferred maintenance at $2.4 billion. Civil rights activists, including BUILD and the ACLU of Maryland, established a new coalition to push for increased school construction funding, dubbed “21st Century School Buildings for Our Kids.” The campaign led to new policies supporting the renovation or replacement of more than two dozen school buildings over a 10-year period.25

Fair housing activists have seen some small victories, notably a 2016 court decision on regional housing discrimination with the potential, according to the ACLU of Maryland, to begin “unwinding decades of housing discrimination against African Americans, families with children and people with disabilities.” The win came five years after the ACLU filed suit on behalf of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., the NAACP of Baltimore County and three Baltimore County residents charging that federal funding through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development supported local practices “including exclusionary zoning, resistance to subsidized housing and openly discriminatory housing and development policies” that created and reinforced residential segregation in Baltimore County.26

Activists also demanded action on August 13, 2017, when hundreds of people gathered for a mass rally and march to show their solidarity after the murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia. Just days after speakers at the rally called for the removal of Baltimore’s Confederate monuments, the Lee-Jackson Monument (B-4258) at Wyman Park Dell and three others were taken down, removing just a few symbols of the white supremacy that has pervaded Baltimore’s history.27

These concluding examples illustrate the clear continuity between the civil rights movement of the past and the continued struggle of activists in Baltimore today. Today’s activists are employing many of the same strategies and tactics as prior generations, including state and federal legislation, litigation and public protest. Unfortunately, activists also face similar forms of injustice, including housing and employment discrimination, inequitable funding for education and transportation, and persistent criminal injustice.

  1. “Civil Rights Agenda for the 1980s: A Report of the Maryland Statewide Civil Rights Leadership Conference Held June 26, 1980” (Washington, DC: United States Commission on Civil Rights, May 1981), 

  2. “Shot Youth Is Paralyzed from the Chest Down,” The Sun, March 26, 1980. McGee, who lived a block away from the store, was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the shooting. Detective Stephen McCown reportedly shot McGee without warning after he pulled out a “shiny” object later identified as a cigarette lighter. 

  3. George H. Callcott, Maryland & America, 1940 to 1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 169–71. 

  4. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, First Edition (New York: Random House, 2010), 398. 

  5. “Civil Rights Agenda for the 1980s: A Report of the Maryland Statewide Civil Rights Leadership Conference Held June 26, 1980.” 

  6. Jerelyn Eddings, “Civil Wrongs,” The Sun, March 27, 1988, sec. Perspective. 

  7. Eric Siegel, “Rev. Burns Keeps the Heat on: NAACP Executive Adds Vitality to Changing Civil Rights Struggle,” The Sun, August 28, 1983. National NAACP membership also experienced a substantial decline from the early 1960s to the 1970s dropping from around 520,000 in 1963 to 465,000 in 1964 to 390,235 in 1971. 

  8. The Baltimore NAACP offices were located at 1324 Druid Hill Avenue (residence of Harry S. Cummings in the 1890s) in the early 1970s but moved to North Avenue around 1976 before moving to W. 25th Street around 1980. 

  9. “Timeline of the Maryland HBCU Equality Lawsuit,” Afro, February 28, 2017. 

  10. Philip Moeller, “Including Blacks, Women in City’s Economic Future,” The Sun, June 19, 1991, sec. Business Extra. 

  11. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, “Thompson v. HUD,” accessed November 6, 2018, 

  12. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

  13. Karen Houppert, “The Civilian Review Board Ups Its Game,” Baltimore City Paper, May 11, 2016. 

  14. “Illegal Arrests Lawsuit Against Baltimore Police Department,” ACLU of Maryland, October 11, 2017, 

  15. “Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department” (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, August 10, 2016). 

  16. Umar Farooq, “Baltimore Algebra Project Stops Juvenile Detention Center,” The Nation, January 24, 2012; Yvonne Wenger, “State Scraps Plans to Build Youth Jail in Baltimore,” The Baltimore Sun, January 16, 2013. 

  17. Evan Serpick, “Hundreds Take to West Baltimore Streets to Protest Freddie Gray’s Death,” Baltimore City Paper, April 22, 2015. 

  18. BUILD's members included the nearby St. Martin Church of Christ at 2118 W. Madison Avenue. The No Boundaries Coalition started as a group of residents hosting a "Boundary Block Party" on Eutaw Place in 2008. In 2010, they met for a lasagna dinner at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church and more formally established the coalition. The group is closely associated with Newborn Holistic Ministries (now known as Intersections of Change) located in a converted rowhouse at 1947 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

  19. “Over-Policed, Yet Underserved: The People’s Findings Regarding Police Misconduct in West Baltimore” (West Baltimore Commission on Police Misconduct and the No Boundaries Coalition, March 8, 2016). 

  20. “Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department.” 

  21. Luke Broadwater and Jessica Anderson, “Youth Jail Protest Jams Baltimore Traffic during Morning Rush,” The Baltimore Sun, May 26, 2015. 

  22. NAACP Legal Defense Fund, “Baltimore Red Line Complaint,” December 21, 2015, 44; Ovetta Wiggins and Bill Turque, “NAACP to Challenge Cancellation of Baltimore Red Line Rail Project,” Washington Post, December 21, 2015, sec. Maryland Politics; Katherine Shaver, “Federal Officials Close Civil Rights Complaint about Baltimore Light-Rail Project,” Washington Post, July 13, 2017, sec. Transportation. 

  23. Ira Goldstein and Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, “Subprime Lending, Mortgage Foreclosures and Race: How Far Have We Come and How Far Have We to Go?” (TRF, 2008). 

  24. Jason Richardson, Bruce Mitchell, and Nicole West, “Home Mortgage and Small Business Lending in Baltimore and Surrounding Areas” (Washington, DC: NCRC, November 2015). 

  25. 21st-Century Schools, “The History,” 

  26. “Baltimore County Signs Agreement with HUD to End Decades of Housing Discrimination,” ACLU of Maryland, October 11, 2017, 

  27. Colin Campbell, “Baltimore Marchers Protest Confederate Monuments and White Supremacy,” The Baltimore Sun, August 13, 2017.