While introducing civil rights leader Larry Gibson at Beth Am Synagogue’s Sages for the Ages program on Sunday, attorney and congregant Ron Shapiro told the diverse audience of around 75 people — ranging from Beth Am congregants to former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke — to prepare for Gibson to interrupt Shapiro frequently.
Why? “That’s just what best friends do,” Shapiro said. He explained he and Gibson had been friends for 50 years, meeting in 1968 when the two clerked for federal judge Frank Kaufman.
Just seconds into Shapiro’s introduction, his prediction proved true, as Gibson insisted on welcoming the group who filled Beth Am’s marble-flanked sanctuary, and even teased the audience a little. “It’s a beautiful Sunday,” Gibson chided. “And you’re in here watching two old dudes talk.”
From a program that was more of an intimate conversation between longtime friends than a formal interview emerged a second, underlying story: one of an unlikely friendship that shaped each man’s life and career.
The year Gibson and Shapiro forged their friendship, 1968, would prove pivotal for them and for the national civil rights movement. Despite their different backgrounds, Gibson, who is black, and Shapiro, who is Jewish, clicked immediately as they worked and studied for the Bar exam. That year, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.
King’s assassination had a profound effect on them, Gibson said. He said he’d been planning on joining an “establishment” firm after graduating from law school, but instead joined the fight for civil rights. Shapiro said Gibson’s reaction inspired him. “You gave me your own ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Shapiro reminded Gibson. “You said, ‘The way we change things is through politics.’”
Politics and law, Gibson agreed. In addition to litigating major civil rights cases, Gibson recognized early on the role politics would play in furthering the movement, and engineered groundbreaking political campaigns across Maryland.
The two, who may have otherwise drifted back into their own worlds after their shared clerkship, joined forces to file some of the first national litigation enforcing the newly passed Fair Housing Act.
Shapiro remembers how “nice” Gibson was when dealing with the landlords they sued for racial discrimination. While Shapiro said he was rankled and angry, he noted to Gibson: “You had no rancor.”
“Oh, I understood those situations,” Gibson chuckled.
Perhaps as a result of this astute assessment of situations and people, Gibson forged a career adorned with firsts. He was the first African-American law clerk to a federal judge below the Mason-Dixon line and the first faculty member of a law school in the South. He managed the campaigns for Baltimore’s first citywide African-American judge, the first African-American state’s attorney, the first African-American court clerk in Maryland and the first African-American elected mayor of Baltimore. Internationally, Gibson ran successful campaigns for the first female head of state in Liberia, and for the president of Madagascar.
But Gibson said he doesn’t count firsts among his personal achievements. “Those are just ways of marking when certain barriers break down,” he said. And, when Shapiro asked him to speak of his political accomplishments, Gibson refused the credit. “All these campaigns,” he told Shapiro. “We did them together.”
Gibson said that whenever he faced a difficult decision in his career — whether to take on Schmoke’s first campaign, whether to manage a campaign in Liberia despite “being allergic to machine guns”— he drew back on the “statement of purpose” he wrote for himself early in his career. His purpose, Gibson said, was to be “a just and learned person.” Later he revised the statement to include “helping other just and learned persons succeed.” This purpose, which “distilled life into one sentence,” helped Gibson make the major decisions that shaped his career and life.
When deciding which campaigns to run, Gibson said he employs four questions to make his decisions. The first is “can I talk them out of it?” Next, he asks himself if they are a “just and learned person.” Finally, he factors in what he can bring to the table, and whether the candidate would be likely to follow his advice.
Gibson, who is Shapiro’s law partner and has taught for 44 years at University of Maryland Carey School of Law, grew up in Baltimore. The landmark Supreme Court case that desegregated schools, Brown vs. the Board of Education, sharply divided Gibson’s educational career into “before and after.” After that case, Gibson followed his brother into Baltimore City College.
Gibson vividly remembers his first day of school, the fall of 1956, when he learned a host of names “I never heard before.” City College, he claims, was an egalitarian oasis. There was “no discrimination,” he said. There, he learned that “not all white people are smart,” a revelation he found refreshing.
Outside the school, however, segregation starkly divided Baltimore into black and white. As Gibson matured and learned how large the city really was, he also learned how much of it was off limits to him because of his skin color.
Gibson attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., vowing to never return to Baltimore. Despite this, he found himself returning frequently for sit-ins to protest segregation. Instead of fleeing, Gibson chose to fight for the changes he wanted to see in his hometown.
Now, Gibson says he is optimistic about Baltimore’s future. Evidence of his decades of work can be found from city hall to the state house to the airport, where Gibson successfully campaigned to name Baltimore-Washington International Airport after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Attendee Christopher King, who works for Conscious Real Estate Investments Roundtable, which purchased Thurgood Marshall’s childhood home, said, “Seeing the banter between Larry and Ron, feeling that energy and seeing their 50-year friendship, it gives me hope for the future of Baltimore City.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.