Controversy over Thurgood Marshall Airport

Maryland lawmakers have approved a bill that would re-name the Baltimore Washington International Airport after Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice, and a native of Baltimore. But the plan has sparked controversy, as Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports.

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Maryland lawmakers have approved a bill that would rename the Baltimore/Washington International Airport after Thurgood Marshall. He's not only the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice but a Baltimore native as well. Maryland's governor has yet to sign the bill. The measure's opponents, however, say it was rushed through the state Legislature with little debate on its economic impact. Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER reporting:

Under the original legislation, Baltimore/Washington International Airport, or BWI, would have been renamed the Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport. But when it looked like the Maryland Legislature wouldn't approve that name, the bill's sponsor, state Democratic House member Emmett Burns, agreed on a compromise, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Representative EMMETT BURNS (Maryland, Democrat): I said it...

Unidentified Man: How you doing?

Rep. BURNS: How you doing?

MARSHALL-GENZER: Burns pushed hard for his bill, even standing outside the Legislature, handing out flyers with the airport's logo pasted next to the compromise name, under the heading: Why not? The bill's critics say they base their opposition on economic issues, but Burns doesn't believe that.

Rep. BURNS: So don't tell me if you put a black man's name there, people aren't going to want to fly the BWI Airport. It's going to hurt the marketing. Are you telling me black folk aren't going to want to fly, white folks aren't going to want to fly because a black man's name is there? Ridiculous.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Burns saw racial overtones to the debate over his bill. But state political and business leaders said they were only worried that the new name would make it hard to compete with two other airports in the Washington suburbs: Dulles International and Ronald Reagan National, both in northern Virginia. Lou Sagarino(ph) owns two hotels near BWI Airport. He's happy that the compromise kept BWI in the airport's name but still worries that the new name would confuse passengers.

Mr. LOU SAGARINO (Hotel Owner): BWI is what people know today. It's geographic. When you change the name of your local grocery store, you spend weeks and months, and it seems like in weeks or months we're talking about changing a very large engine for this economic train here without all evaluations.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Some passengers at the airport recently agreed with Sagarino. Business consultant Coleman Lauderback(ph) is from Annapolis, Maryland.

Mr. COLEMAN LAUDERBACK (Business Consultant): I don't think anybody really looked at what it costs to do it. I'm not sure they thought it--anything through. It's as if somebody had a great idea in the shower or something, and next think you know, they're changing it and passing a law.

MARSHALL-GENZER: But Reggie Winstead(ph) from Springfield, Virginia, says he can't see any economic disadvantages to the name change. He uses the Ronald Reagan National Airport, which used to be known simply as National Airport, as an example.

Mr. REGGIE WINSTEAD: So all of the contributions that Thurgood Marshall made to the country, his contributions have been as great as Ronald Reagan, and so, you know, to name this airport in honor of Thurgood Marshall, in my opinion, is just as great an idea and will have the same impact as did Ronald Reagan.

MARSHALL-GENZER: The impact of the airport name on Thurgood Marshall's legacy could be substantial. Mark Tushnet clerked for Marshall at the Supreme Court in the early 1970s and now teaches constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law School. Tushnet says the airport could display educational material that would explain Marshall's role in fighting discrimination, especially his victory in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that declared segregated schools illegal. But Tushnet says Marshall was skeptical about having things named after him.

Mr. MARK TUSHNET (Georgetown University Law School): This is an issue that he would have had a certain amount of ironic distance from. He, of course, would have appreciated the--being honored. But he would also almost certainly say, `Look, the conditions of African-Americans in this country are still so bad that you shouldn't think that you're doing anything for my community'--that is, the African-American community--`simply by naming an airport after me.'

MARSHALL-GENZER: Before he died in 1993, Thurgood Marshall had refused to attend a renaming ceremony for the University of Maryland Law School when it was named after him. The university had refused to admit him as a student because he was African-American.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer.

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