By Marc H. Morial
“Wherever there has been struggle, black women have been identified with that struggle.” – Ella Baker, “The Black Woman in the Civil Rights Struggle,” 1969
Marilyn Mosby was sworn into office as Maryland state’s attorney for Baltimore city in January of this year at the Baltimore War Memorial Plaza building. Before unseating the incumbent, Gregg Bernstein, for the job, the 35-year-old had never held an elected office.
Five months later, the city’s newly-minted, top prosecutor—the youngest chief prosecutor in any major American city—returned to the steps of the War Memorial Plaza to announce charges, including murder, manslaughter and assault, against six police officers in the unwarranted death of Freddie Gray—simultaneously emerging into the national spotlight as an advocate for those demanding police accountability and an adversary for those who would protect the status quo.
On the night of her swearing in, Mosby was joined by a host of dignitaries, including her husband, Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby—who represents the West Baltimore area that has been the backdrop to the protests over Gray’s death—along with her two daughters. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also sat among the evening’s guests and, in a speech, advised Mosby that, “Public service is not just a job, it’s a calling and it is a privilege.”
Mosby’s calling to public service was born of tragedy and tradition. When Mosby was 14, her 17-year-old cousin was mistaken for a drug dealer and shot and killed near her home. She often credits her cousin’s murder as the reason why she decided to become a prosecutor.
She also comes from a five-generation long line of law enforcement officials. Both of her parents, an aunt, four uncles and her grandfather—who was a founding member of the first association of Black police officers in her hometown of Massachusetts—were police officers.
Growing up in a family of cops, Mosby knows the good, good police officers can do in our communities. She indicted six police officers, not an entire force. Her actions are not anti-cop; they are pro-police and law enforcement accountability. She assured the public—and the nation—that her administration is, “committed to creating a fair and equitable justice system for all. No matter what your occupation, your age, your race, your color or your creed.”
Like any major American city, Baltimore has its assets and its challenges. Its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has been at the frontline, grappling with the deeply entrenched challenges of the city left in her charge since replacing a former mayor, who resigned under charges of corruption, then being elected to her first full term as mayor in 2011. She has been touched by the almost inescapable violence that stems from these challenges when in 2002, she found her brother covered in blood and nearly decapitated by a sword that was used during a carjacking in front of her house.
In her 2014 State of Black America® essay, Mayor Rawlings-Blake painted a bleak picture, noting that in Baltimore city, more than 1 in 5 African-American adult residents live in poverty, while 1 in every 3 African-American children and teens are also living in poverty. She warned that, “Poverty is a deep-rooted ill, permeated with inequity, and it will take a focused, concerted assault on all fronts to excise it. We must think outside the box, and be bold as we confront the challenges that lie in our path. I am committed to the fight.”
Mayor Rawlings-Blake—the daughter of the legendary Howard “Pete” Rawlings, the first African American to become chair of the Appropriations Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates—has made her name on the national stage. She is only one of two Black female mayors of the 100 largest cities in the country. She currently serves as secretary of the Democratic National Committee and is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
But she is grabbing our attention today, not for her impressive resume, but for her unflagging commitment to “the fight” in Baltimore for equality and justice. As she promised in a recent press conference, “As mayor, I will be relentless in changing the culture of the police department to ensure that everyone in our city is treated equally under the law.”
Now that the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray have been charged, the prosecutor’s office will present its case to a city grand jury that will consider the charges and decide whether to indict. At the same time, the Department of Justice—now being led by another African-American woman, Loretta Lynch—is also conducting an investigation into the case and into the Baltimore Police Department.
I applaud these women, and all women—and men—who are fighting for justice for Freddie and, by extension, for us. I applaud these leaders as they claim their place in the pantheon of Black female fighters who have traditionally played a key role in our nation’s struggle for equality and justice—for all.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.