In the current purging of America’s remnants of racism and white supremacy, is it possible that Maryland might find its conscience and get in on the action?
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s televised murder, and thousands protesting in the streets, white America begins attempting to scrub itself clean of all lingering evidence of its historic bigotry.
But what about the big example around here?
Anybody want to hum a few bars?
Across parts of the South, they’re tearing down statues of Confederate heroes such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. NASCAR has banned Confederate flags from its races. Even HBO Max got into the act, removing “Gone with the Wind” from its catalog.
Frankly, Scarlett, we do give a damn.
And now the U.S. military’s getting into the spirit. The Defense Department’s talking about removing the names of Confederate generals from 10 different military bases.
(Although, never one to miss a chance to poke a stick into a few national wounds, President Trump tweets, “My administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”)
Trump aside, all of these gestures are long overdue. These Confederate leaders weren’t heroes, they were attempting to kill American soldiers and destroy the United States of America in order to preserve a system of human slavery.
Around here, we’re slightly ahead of the current purging game.
After all, in one of her early acts as mayor of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh took it upon herself to have public works crews topple some Confederate statues during her ill-fated administration.
But what about the state’s biggest embarrassment?
It’s that hateful state song, “Maryland, My Maryland.”
The best thing about the song is that almost nobody knows its lyrics. And those who do know the words probably never stop to think about what they mean.
Can we pause for a brief history lesson here?
The song was written in 1861, in the immediate aftermath of an attack by a secessionist Baltimore mob upon a regiment of Massachusetts soldiers heading to Washington to join the Union Army.
A Baltimore native and teacher named James Ryder Randall found this so inspiring that he wrote a poem intended to call his home state to battle — on the side of the Confederacy.
It’s the only state song in America urging overthrow of the U.S. government.
Randall depicts Abraham Lincoln as a “tyrant,” a “despot” and a “vandal.” The song even uses the Latin phrase “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”), the slogan shouted by John Wilkes Booth when he assassinated Lincoln.
Rather than give in to Lincoln’s tyranny and “Northern scum,” Randall writes:
“Better the fire upon thee roll/
Better the shot, the blade, the bowl/
Than crucifixion of the soul.”
In other words, writes Randall, better to continue human enslavement than endure what he considers the death of our very souls.
Even though the song was written in 1861, it wasn’t until 1939 that the General Assembly adopted “Maryland, My Maryland” as the state song. There were legislative efforts, in 1980 and on other occasions, to remove it, but Confederate sympathizers petitioned legislators to retain it.
With their customary courage and sensitivity, legislators caved in.
That damned song is still with us, not only a public embarrassment but a reminder of the cruelest instincts of human beings, and a bloody era that almost destroyed America itself.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).