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George H. Lambert, Jr.

Of all the coverage of the disturbance in Baltimore that came in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, the item that caught my attention the most was CNN’s coverage of the powerful African American women in charge of that city. Howard University alumna Stephanie Elam has authoritatively treated such recent issues as the shooting of Michael Brown and the racist remarks of L.A .Clippers owner Donald Sterling.  Here, she cast a spotlight on “three powerful black women whose legacies may forever be tied to this moment in Baltimore’s history.”

I wholeheartedly agree that their steady, proactive presence calmed the city and prevented even greater violence and destruction. In the first hours of the crisis, I reached out to my counterpart at the Baltimore Urban League, J. Howard Henderson, whose wisdom and perspective I have come to trust deeply over the years.  Despite all that was gong on, he took the time to share these observations:

  • Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, from the moment the situation arose through her request last week for the Department of Justice to investigate the city’s police department, has consistently demonstrated resourcefulness and integrity.
  • Marilyn Mosby, the youngest chief prosecutor of any major city in America, has been decisive in the face of enormous scrutiny.
  • Linda Singh, Adjutant General of the State of Maryland, oversaw a measured, appropriate response to the disturbance.

I would like to add four more black women to the list of bold Baltimore heroines.

  • Toya Graham, the mother videotaped slapping her 16-year-old son. She didn’t ask to be at the center of a debate about parenting. She just acted on instinct to keep her boy from making a mistake.
  • Catherine Pugh, State Senator representing Maryland’s District 40, and Chair of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, who walked the pre- and post-curfew streets asking residents to go home. She didn’t want the residents of her city to be arrested and possibly hurt.
  • Gospel singer and activist Doreen Vail, who offered her neighbors hope and inspiration through her gorgeous vocals at impromptu street performances.
  • Michelle Obama, who took the opportunity recently to address the larger issue of despair in her commencement speech at Tuskegee University: “I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.”

Beyond the examples set by these seven women, I am also impressed by the reaction of community members to the reckless behavior of a small minority of protestors.  With regard to the media, a shout out to Jim Vance at NBC 4 for the excellent and balanced coverage. However, we know that some media will continue to sensationalize unlawful and bad behavior rather than celebrating acts of heroism large and small.  Despite this knowledge, we may still need to remind ourselves to tune out irresponsible coverage and to focus on the solutions that lead to greater justice and equity.

If there’s one image that will stick with me from these past few distressing weeks, it’s the chain of hands formed by black men, standing in solidarity with police officers in riot gear, outside a recently looted storefront. This photo by Jim Bourg of Reuters signals to me that the residents of the Baltimore City neighborhoods that Americans saw on T.V. really do care about keeping the peace and about how their community is portrayed in the national media.  It was a lovely sight.

As the city heals itself through self-examination, proactive measures and coalitions with law enforcement and the community, it gives me reason to hope. 

George H. Lambert, Jr. is the President and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.