Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified University of Maryland student Colin Byrd as an alumnus of the school. The story has been updated with the correct information.
The fate of a petition to remove what organizers describe as racist symbols from the Maryland State House and the University of Maryland football stadium seemed uncertain Wednesday as Gov. Larry Hogan (R) hedged on the issue, despite saying he wants to end the use of the Confederate battle flag on specialty license plates.
“The Confederate flag is a divisive symbol, and that is why the governor called for its removal from Maryland license plates,” said Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer.
But Mayer offered a different message in regard to the MoveOn.org petition, which calls for removing a statue at the state capital and renaming the U-Md. football stadium.
“Maryland has a 381-year history, and we should be very cautious about removing historical landmarks depicting figures and events from our past,” Mayer said. “Rushing to judgment isn’t the right way to go about this.”
A debate over the Confederate flag and related symbols has erupted nationwide since last week’s mass shooting by a suspected white supremacist at an African American church in Charleston, S.C.
Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has pushed to halt the practice of flying the Confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said his state will phase out license plates with the flag, and retailers Wal-Mart and Amazon.com announced they will stop selling Confederate-themed products.
Hogan’s stance toward the MoveOn.org petition highlights the complicated nature of racial politics in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1 but members of both parties range from strongly progressive to quite conservative.
The petition, launched by U-Md. student Colin Byrd, demands that the state take down the statue of U.S. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney from outside the State House in Annapolis and calls for U-Md. to remove the name of Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd from its football stadium in College Park. (Colin Byrd, who is African American, says he has always wondered, but does not know, whether he is a distant relative of the stadium namesake.)
Taney wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which upheld slavery and said blacks born in the United States could not be U.S. citizens. Byrd was a segregationist who, according to MoveOn.org, was responsible for the race-based rejection of Thurgood Marshall, who would become the Supreme Court’s first African American justice, from the U-Md. law school.
The petition was not drawing huge support, with about 330 signatures as of Wednesday evening. In contrast, Hogan’s call to pull the Confederate-flag plate was echoed by some 30 state lawmakers — three of them Republican legislative leaders, including House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County).
Szeliga said she considered proposing a bill last year to remove the Taney statue but decided to wait. “It’s something we should look at seriously,” she said. “I’d love to see that statue replaced with [abolitionist] Harriet Tubman.”
But several officials and lawmakers interviewed Wednesday were doubtful about whether such an effort would succeed, saying Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the longtime Maryland Senate president, is likely to block attempts to meddle with historic symbols. The officials and lawmakers spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of offending Miller, who through a spokesman declined several requests for comment on the petition.
The spokesman provided a letter Miller wrote last week to Colin Byrd, who also led an earlier campaign to rename Byrd Stadium. Echoing sentiments expressed by descendants of Scott and Taney in recent years, the letter suggested that removing the name would hide Maryland’s history rather than educating the public about it.
“I am a student of history and this is not the first time a part of the history of Maryland has been raised and dealt with through compromise in a manner that appropriately reflects all views on a matter,” Miller wrote.
He said he helped orchestrate a compromise regarding the Taney statue in the early 1990s, in which the state added a statue of Marshall near the statehouse.
Miller’s spokesman said Wednesday that Miller supports Hogan’s efforts to remove the confederate flag from license plates.
In April, the U-Md. student government endorsed Byrd’s renaming proposal, and U-Md.
President Wallace Loh sent the matter to the school’s naming committee for review. University spokesman Brian Ullman said the committee has not yet met, adding that the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, which is appointed by the governor, has “ultimate authority” over naming campus buildings.
“Structures erected in honor of Roger Taney and Curley Byrd are symbols of racial hatred with no place in our government,” Byrd’s petition says, “and . . . it’s time to put these symbols behind us, accelerate our healing, and have Maryland embrace unity and respect for human rights rather than division and white supremacy.”
A second petition on MoveOn.org, also from Colin Byrd, calls for Capital One bank, Pepsi and the Under Armour apparel company to cut financial ties to U-Md. until the school decides to rename Byrd Stadium. That effort had 30 signatures Wednesday evening.
Maryland and Virginia had been under court order to permit images of the Confederate flag on their license plates. But that changed last week, when the Supreme Court ruled that Texas could reject a license-plate design requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The decision does not force states to change their policies on specialty tags, but it allows them to reinstate prior restrictions on Confederate symbols that were overturned.