When 250,000 demonstrators gathered for the March on Washington 20 years ago, Dave Rakes was a 26-year-old post office worker in the District. Steve Kendrick was a child in the small southern town of Clinton, Tenn., which a few years earlier had been the site of violence after black parents brought one of the first successful suits to integrate a public high school.
And Columbia, an urban experiment in rural Howard County where more than 50,000 people now live, was a dream on the drawing board. Rakes and Kendrick, two of the organizers of the Howard County Coalition--which helped assemble 600 to 700 Howard residents at the 20th anniversary of the historic march last Saturday--believe the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of equality in 1963 had a profound impact on Columbia when it was launched four years later.
"That march was very much a part of why I moved to Columbia," said Rakes, now an official with the federal Minority Business Development Office. "I was working the night shift at the post office. I came out that morning and saw the placards and banners, and, mainly, all those black and white people sharing something. It was something I had never seen before.
"At that point, I wanted to see what life was like where race was not an overriding issue. Columbia was a response to that same question."
Columbia was the dream of James Rouse, a developer who wanted to see his city integrated in every sense: by income group, race, religion and age, and with schools, stores and houses. (Rouse continues to live in the community today.)
Sixteen years after it was founded as a unique planned city, Columbia is a community where things blend easily. The car mechanic's shop is as attractive as the insurance office across the winding, tree-lined street. Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Baptists share interfaith centers as houses of worship.
And it is a place, the coalition organizers said, where about 40,000 whites and 10,000 blacks mingle with as little conflict as the water birds on Kittamaqundi, the lake in the town's commercial center. Rakes said the racial breakdown of marchers from Howard last week was "close to 50-50." Most were from Columbia, he said.
"The march was a conscience prod for the rest of the nation," said Kendrick, a Unitarian minister who was attracted to the city a year ago by its reputation for tolerance. "So is Columbia. To the question of whether the races can live together, the answer in Columbia is yes."
Rakes agrees with that assessment, but says that while there is racial integration in politics and education, "there is not that much interaction on a social level." Rouse, he said, believed that open housing policies in particular would lead to that interaction, but that is happening only in "certain neighborhoods."
Yet when Ku Klux Klan literature was distributed several months ago in a volunteer fire department station at Savage, southeast of Columbia, reaction against the incident by a range of community groups was "very strong," he said.
More recently, a black woman who moved to a predominantly white apartment complex in Savage reported that "KKK" had been sprayed on her front door last weekend, an incident Maryland State Police were investigating. State trooper Tom Coppinger said Tuesday that he believed the spraying incident was "a prank," and said there had been no previous sprayings at the complex.
The woman said in an interview that she had been the target of several previous incidents since moving to the complex, including being spat upon by a white youth at a swimming pool.
Rakes says he is not aware of such overt acts occurring within the new town, however, and observes that the "quality of life in Columbia is higher than most of the adjoining areas." But he said the potential exists for Columbia to experience other kinds of social problems, particularly those associated with unsupervised children and unemployment.
For that reason, he is anxious to channel the goodwill generated among Columbia residents at the march and a pre-march rally held at the lakefront last Friday night. The march, he said, brought together "a lot of people who normally wouldn't have come together . . . . We want to keep that going."
Rakes became active in the civil rights movement after the march and participated in open-housing demonstrations around Washington and was a leader of a black students' group at Bowie State University.
"The national open housing bill was passed, but the idea of people living together wasn't accepted in the older communities," he said. "I didn't find it in P.G. County. I didn't find it in Montgomery. When I moved there in 1970, Columbia was a new town with a pioneer spirit. There was no one already there to decide who's not going to move in. We all believed integration was the way." Rekindling that pioneer spirit is important now that Columbia is growing fast, Rakes said.
"I was disturbed that in the year I had lived here, I had not met one black minister," Kendrick said of his reasons for helping to organize the march. "I was disquieted about the reality as opposed to the rhetoric. Now a lot of churches that haven't talked in years are coming together."