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Want to beat back the Klan? Use the power of your vote

August 28, 2004|by Cheryl Keyes Fisher

Earlier this month when Willie Mays came to Hagerstown, he was cheered and toasted and treated like the great athlete and humanitarian that he is. The Hall of Fame player came back to Hagerstown this summer to celebrate baseball's legacy.

It was a happy occasion. The town's important politicians, businessmen and residents came to pay their respects. Mays made a difference in the history of baseball. He made himself heard. That was July 2004.

Fifty-four years ago, in 1950, Willie Mays came to Hagerstown for the very first time. He was booed and jeered and treated as less than human by many white Hagerstown residents, who saw him as a joke. He couldn't stay with his team at the local hotel.

Instead, he stayed at the Harmon Hotel on Jonathan Street, where the black people lived. It was an unhappy occasion for him. Many of the town's white residents weren't willing to accept a black baseball player, while the black residents stood outside the segregated gates.

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That was then, this is now. In the same summer that Willie Mays visits Hagerstown, the local Ku Klux Klan plans to march in nearby Sharpsburg. The grand wizard lives in Hagerstown.

In 2004, the Klan plans to turn back the hands of time to demonstrate the same intolerance their brothers and sisters showed more than 50 years ago. And once again, in their own back yard, Hagerstown's black population must face the activities of an organization whose name is historically associated with hatred and violence.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and offers a chance to see how we've changed. I grew up in Hagerstown and had a very roller-coaster-like upbringing.

For instance, consider what happened when Hagerstown's schools were forced to desegregate. As a second grader at the old North Street School, white politicians and school officials determined that sending white, mentally retarded children to school with black children, they met the criteria for desegregation.

I shared my third-grade classroom with four or five mentally retarded white kids. By fourth grade I was attending the formerly all-white Woodland Way Elementary School, where I was locked out of the girls' showers and belittled by some uncaring white teachers. But at home and in my church, we learned to put education first in order to have a better life. And so we persevered.

Then the civil rights era came to Hagerstown and I witnessed many racial confrontations on the way to equal opportunities for all Americans.

Later, this turned into an era of the firsts: First black cheerleader, first black student government president (I was the second black president, behind Gary Cook), first black African American studies class, and on.

My father became one of Washington County's first black deputy sheriffs. I went on to graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park where I majored in journalism. I'm now an Internal Communications Manager with the federal government where I have been employed for 18 years.

During this time, the Klan has remained active, doing whatever such organizations do.

The first axiom of Klan behavior is this: It will seize any available issue for use in organizing and recruiting, especially when the issue is racial and sensitive. Today, the Klan members marching are linked by their group's name to that very same group that prevented many black Americans from the simple act of voting.

The Klan says it now wants to use its voting power to elect leaders to fight their cause. I believe in 2004 we can prevent that from happening. And we don't need to use violence or bloodshed. Just vote. Make a difference. Be heard. Willie Mays did it. So can you. Vote now.

Cheryl Keyes Fisher
North Hagerstown High School Student Government President 1974

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