EASTON — Dozens of civil rights activists, African-American leaders and passionate individuals joined the Summer’s Freedom Bus Ride on Monday to highlight historical and contemporary racism and concerns about policing across the Eastern Shore.
Modeled after the trips of the Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the bus made stops at significant landmarks in Easton, Cambridge, Salisbury, Berlin and Ocean City to bring awareness to the activists’ fight for racial equality and justice and the end to police brutality.
Freedom Bus riders first stopped in Easton at the Talbot Boys Confederate monument to listen to local advocates speak on issues surrounding the statue.
The monument, which was erected and placed on the Talbot County Courthouse lawn in 1916, has been a point of contention within Talbot County in recent years. Opponents of the statue argue that it is a symbol of racism and white supremacy; those in favor of keeping it argue that removing the statue would be erasing county history.
The Talbot County Council voted 3-2 to keep the monument in place in August 2020. A federal lawsuit was filed in May 2021 to take efforts on removing the statue from the courthouse grounds to the next level.
Before local activists spoke about the monument, the crowd linked arms and gathered to sing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” a freedom song frequently sung by participants in earlier civil rights movements.
“The only thing I can say to you is that we have three council members who embody the messages that this monument set, which is racism, bigotry and hatred for a group of people,” said Richard Potter, president of the Talbot County branch of the NAACP.
Talbot County’s NAACP branch and other groups in support of moving the monument “tried” to work with the county’s elected officials, but they were “unwilling” to work with the groups, Potter said. One of those groups is the Move the Monument Coalition, whose yellow-shirted members came to the courthouse lawn in solidarity with the Freedom Bus riders.
The coalition, which formed after the death of George Floyd last summer, “believes that this monument has no place on a public site of justice and equality,” said Jess Taylor, a member of the Coalition’s leadership team.
The Freedom Bus then stopped at the Harriet Tubman Memorial Park in Cambridge, taking a moment of silence to remember Tubman and Gloria Richardson, another local civil rights activist who died at 99 last Thursday.
Cambridge is a significant location in African-American civil rights movements in Maryland. Tubman, who was born in Dorchester County, liberated many slaves in the region in the mid-1800s. Richardson was born in Cambridge and was active in the 1960s civil rights demonstrations in the town. A notable figure in the local civil rights movement, Richardson is well known for signing the Treaty of Cambridge in 1963 with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, along with fighting for civil rights and justice for the rest of her life.
Members of the crowd in Cambridge spanned a wide range of ages, but Delegate Sandy Bartlett, D-Anne Arundel, had a message for the next generation of civil rights activists.
“If you look around today, you will see young people amongst us; we are teaching them that the expectation is no racism, equality and opportunities for everyone,” she said. “So this march today, this Freedom Ride, is to send the message that we will not tolerate racism anymore.”
Freedom Bus riders Drake Smith and Erin Shields, both 18, are fresh graduates of Anne Arundel County high schools. The two came on the bus together to speak up for civil rights and bring young representation to the tour, hoping to inspire others to get involved.
“Last summer, I feel bad because I didn’t really speak out that much, I didn’t go on any protests,” Shields said. “So I wanted to show up, definitely as a young person to represent and make a difference.”
“I just don’t want people to think that was a one and done thing, right?” Smith said. “This is an ever-moving struggle, and we’re just out here until we get the justice we demanded.”
The Freedom Bus Ride tour also made stops at the lynching memorial in Salisbury and the American Legion post in Berlin to learn about local Black history and discuss racism and policing with members of the community. After meeting with the freedom riders at the memorial, Salisbury Mayor Jay Day endorsed the leaders’ efforts to address systemic racism and police misconduct. Day also told the group that he stands with his officers when they’re right and will discipline them when they’re wrong.
A final stop in Ocean City marked the end of the Freedom Bus riders’ journey. Civil rights leaders from the buses originally planned to address the mayor and town council at a regular session of city council, but that council meeting was canceled.
However, leaders were still able to speak with Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, calling on him to reconsider an investigation of the Ocean City Police Department after an incident last month. They also asked Meehan to consider hiring an equity officer — an official who would promote equal opportunity and minority businesses in the city — which he said would take under advisement. Meehan also committed to have future meetings with the Worcester County NAACP president Ivory Smith.
“We don’t listen to what politicians say, we watch what they do,” said Carl Snowden, the event organizer speaking on behalf of the Caucus of African American Leaders. “We are looking forward to seeing what the mayor does concerning the promises he made.”
The tour culminated with a protest on the boardwalk in Ocean City, where local police officers are under scrutiny following the use of force and arrests on two Black teenagers who allegedly violated the city’s vaping prohibition last month. Ocean City, its beaches and other towns across the Shore historically had segregationist laws and atmospheres designed to exclude or restrict access to Black people and other minorities.
Freedom Bus riders are hopeful their tour and protests will continue to bring awareness to police brutality and systemic racism on the Eastern Shore. To Jo Ann Scipio, who came on the bus representing the Caucus of African American Leaders and her historically Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, the public needs to know that they mean business.
“Like they said, when you mess with one of us, you’ve got all of us to deal with,” Scipio said.
Natalie Jones is a reporter at The Star Democrat in Easton covering crime, health, education and Talbot County Council. You can reach her with questions, comments or tips at email@example.com.