Throughout most of the 1960s, Cambridge, Maryland was a hotbed of civil rights activity and turbulence. Beginning in 1962, students from Morgan State University and other places had gone down to the small city on the state’s eastern shore to sit in and demonstrate against segregated restaurants and other establishments. Cambridge also had a dynamic civil rights leader from the community in Gloria Richardson, a strong and effective organizer. Richardson and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) escalated protests and sit ins in Cambridge between 1962 and 1967 and were often confronted by an entrenched white establishment and law enforcement presence determined to maintain something of the status quo.
Nevertheless, African Americans persisted in mass demonstrations, political actions and a resolute civil rights community determined to force change. The situation evolved into tension, violence, the national guard called to Cambridge and a protest that turned into a violent episode in July 1967.
As SNCC Chairman in 1967, H. Rap Brown had already developed a reputation as a fiery orator and leader of the increasingly militant black power movement. Now he came to Cambridge and delivered a speech and not long after, a large section of Cambridge’s black neighborhood burned with the destruction of much property. Maryland authorities soon arrested Brown and charged him with incitement to riot and arson.
After a long delay and through the representation of civil rights attorney William Kunstler, a trial was finally set to take place in Bel Air, MD in March 1970 (moved because of the charged climate in Cambridge). Bel Air, Harford County and even Cecil quickly transformed into a tense community with a surge of law enforcement in and around the courthouse and sheriff’s deputies on high alert for any signs of potentially disruptive militants coming into the area in support of Brown.
Then, just before the trial was about to begin, a car exploded in Bel Air, killing two black nationalists and Brown supporters from Washington D.C.: Ralph Featherstone and William “Che” Payne. They allegedly had a dynamite bomb in the car and after deciding to return towards the DC area a mishap occurred within the car leading to the explosion and their deaths. The next day, a bomb exploded outside the courtroom in Cambridge. Harford and Cecil counties remained in an uproar throughout the week as local police along with the FBI determined that the bomb had been carried by the two SNCC activists and blown up accidentally on their way out of town, on Route One at Tollgate Road.
Meanwhile, Maryland governor Marvin Mandel put the National Guard on alert across the state and nearby Cecil County sent 44 troopers to add to the already large security contingent around Harford County. Tension further ratcheted up in the region when 7,000 blasting caps were reported stolen from a company in North East, Maryland not far from Bel Air. Soon, the Harford-based district judge shifted the trial to Howard County based upon a reluctant concession that he had demonstrated bias against the defendant due to a comment he made to local media: “I think Mr. Brown can win this trial. Any criminal has a chance.”
As it turned out, Brown had been grazed by a bullet earlier in the day in Cambridge in 1967 and was not present when the fires broke out. Facing the Maryland charges, Brown became a fugitive and made the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Eventually, the state prosecutor dismissed the charges based upon a lack of evidence and decided that the charges did not match Brown's actions in Cambridge on that day in 1967.
Despite the FBI and Maryland law enforcement conclusions, black nationalists and others believed that Featherstone and Payne were actually assassinated by local white supremacists. Supporters of this theory have cited evidence of the two men being subjects of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program in which the bureau sometimes planted fake evidence on civil rights activists to make them appear more extreme than they were in real life: an effort to make them into black nationalist caricatures.
The Brown trial that never was and the car explosion impacted Harford County by bringing the more extreme aspects of the movement home, literally, as the movement had evolved by 1970. Some national media linked the Bel Air explosion to assorted bombings happening across the nation in 1970, perpetrated or planned by groups such as the Weathermen and Black Panthers. However, groups opposed to busing for the purposes of school integration were also behind some of the violence.
The Black Power phase of the civil rights era did not appear to impact Harford county residents to a great degree. However, the critical events of March 1970 had a long-lasting impact on those who experienced it directly- Harford countians – marking the time an important and memorable moment of the region's civil rights experience.