A consortium of civil rights groups voted unanimously Wednesday to petition the Maryland state government to rename the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which was destroyed by a cargo ship last month, because Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was also a slave owner.

The Caucus of African American Leaders — whose members include the NAACP and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, among others — is urging Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, and the General Assembly to reconsider the bridge’s name, given that Key was a controversial and oftentimes contradictory figure in the anti-slavery movement. They suggested that it be renamed after Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, the first Black Marylander to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970.

“He spent a life, his entire life, creating a bridge between the African American community and literally the larger society,” Carl O. Snowden, the convener for the Caucus of African American Leaders, told NBC News. Mitchell died in 2007.

The bridge, on the eastern end of Baltimore, collapsed on March 26 after a cargo containment ship crashed into it. Federal and state leaders are in talks about plans to rebuild the bridge, which had over 11 million vehicles cross over it annually, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The caucus is also recommending that the Sen. Frederick Malkus Memorial Bridge — which overlooks the Choptank River in Dorchester County, Maryland — be renamed after Gloria Richardson, the first woman in the U.S. to lead a grassroots civil rights organization outside of the Deep South.

The caucus plans to share their recommendation with Moore this week, Snowden said Wednesday. They also plan to discuss the renaming in more detail at their quarterly meeting with the governor. Additionally, the caucus is urging the governor and state government to create a memorial for the six Latino workers who were killed in the bridge collapse, Snowden said.

In 1987, Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a Democrat, opposed naming the bridge after Malkus, who was known for being resistant to desegregation efforts, but his dissent was overruled by the Legislature, Snowden pointed out.

Francis Scott Key’s legacy

The Francis Scott Key Bridge was erected in 1977 and overlooks the Patapsco River — the same river where Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the British defeat at the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.

Key also owned slaves and is said to believe that Black people were intrinsically inferior as a race.

“Every single public structure that is built to honor someone is being done using all taxpayers’ money,” Snowden said. “Whoever the bridge is named after should be somebody that all taxpayers can respect.”

As a lawyer, Key helped Black Americans sue for their freedom prior to widespread emancipation, a decision he would later regret. He in fact detested the idea of Black Americans living among white Americans so much that he became a leading advocate for sending formerly enslaved people to Liberia.

And while Key is attributed with writing that Black Americans are “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community,” the Star Spangled Music Foundation, which promotes American heritage through music, has said that Key’s words, in isolation, have been misconstrued.

Snowden said he is optimistic about the proposal to rename the Key Bridge, given Maryland’s track record of listening to its Black residents and rectifying fraught histories.

In 2017, for example, the caucus successfully petitioned then-Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to remove a statue of Roger B. Taney, the author of the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, from the Maryland state house. Taney, Snowden pointed out, was Key’s brother-in-law.

“​​Am I optimistic? Yes. I’m also pragmatic. I know these things don’t happen overnight,” Snowden said, “but I also know that we can be successful.”


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