It appeared to be settled: Maryland would rename Baltimore-Washington International Airport to honor the late Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first black Supreme Court justice and a Baltimore native.
All that was left yesterday was approval from the state's Board of Public Works. But state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), as usual, had something to say about it.
"This is wrong, and it shouldn't be done," Schaefer told the original sponsor of the proposal, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore), during a lengthy and at times tense public exchange.
Although the name change won broad support this year in the General Assembly, the comptroller suggested that those who objected were forced to remain silent rather than face accusations of racial insensitivity.
"Nobody who is politically wise votes against this, and you know why, and so do I," Schaefer told Burns at a meeting of the three-member panel, which eventually passed the measure, with Schaefer abstaining.
Schaefer said Marshall had in the past resisted being honored in Maryland, a state that denied him admission to law school because of his race. Schaefer, 83, a former governor whose position is up for reelection next year, said he was annoyed by Marshall's reluctance to attend the 1980 dedication of a statue in his likeness erected in downtown Baltimore, the city where the justice was born in 1908.
"He just didn't like Baltimore, and he so expressed it," said Schaefer, who was mayor at the time.
At one point, he made a motion to name the airport for former Baltimore mayor Tommy D'Alessandro, whom Schaefer credited with getting BWI built.
"This should be the D'Alessandro airport if it's anybody's airport," Schaefer said. "He wasn't against Baltimore anytime."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who sat next to Schaefer at the meeting, pushed his chair farther and farther from the comptroller as the exchange went on. He interrupted only to tell Schaefer his alternative motion was out of order. The panel was being asked to affirm or reject the legislature's initiative.
The name change had encountered mild opposition this year from lawmakers, but it was never on the grounds that Marshall did not deserve the tribute.
The original version of the bill called for Marshall's name to appear at the beginning of the airport's name. Some thought that it could cause confusion by undermining the BWI moniker, which has become "a franchise name," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said at the time.
As a compromise, the bill was amended, establishing the airport as Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Legislative analysts estimated the name change would cost the state $2.1 million, most of which would go toward signage in and around the airport.
Civil rights leaders hailed the result, calling it fitting recognition for Marshall's contributions as a lawyer, activist and judge. When the governor signed the bill in May, Burns called it "the second-happiest day of my life," behind his wedding day. "Our purpose is to honor a great man," he told the crowd that day. "Generations yet unborn will ask the meaning of this -- and will be told that this governor, this lieutenant governor, this legislature chose to honor one of its own, a son of Maryland who changed the nation for all of America."
Yesterday, Burns tried mightily to contain his outrage at Schaefer's remarks. Burns attempted to tell Schaefer that many other cities, including Jackson, Miss., New Orleans and Atlanta, had named airports for prominent black innovators.
"You're doing it because others have done it?" Schaefer snapped.
"We did it because it's the right thing to do," Burns replied curtly.
After a series of such exchanges, Ehrlich and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) offered Burns support, with Ehrlich saying he had worked with Burns on the proposal "from day one, second one."
The measure passed 2 to 0.