Banter: Ike Leggett
On the eve of his re-election last fall, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett was hassled by Park Police as he prepared to place campaign signs at a Silver Spring polling place. Leggett, 69, who grew up in rural Louisiana during the era of segregation, talked with Bethesda Magazine about how we have-and haven't-changed since that time.
On Nov. 4, you won a third term as county executive. What happened the day before?
On election eve night, I have this ritual where I go put my signs at 20 polling places. The last place I stopped was the Good Hope Recreation Center [in Silver Spring]. I had a baseball cap, jeans and a sweater on. Just as I drove off Good Hope Road right at the edge of the parking lot, this spotlight hits me and I look back and notice it was a police car. My assumption was that maybe there’s some infraction out on the road.
Just as I’m getting out, the police officer—who turns out to be Park Police, a big guy—starts yelling and screaming and cursing about why am I there and that I had no right to be there…in such a harsh, negative unprofessional tone that I was literally stunned for a minute or two. I don’t recall any racial slurs, but there was some very negative four-letter words. Then another police officer, a female officer, started walking toward us. I think as she got closer to me, she recognized who I was. So she immediately starts to apologize, and says that this guy was new, he didn’t know who I was, and besides—as though it should have mattered—this guy was from Howard County.
Had I been a young teenager, grabbed something out of my pocket and decided to run, or gotten fearful and did something that was in some way misinterpreted, who knows what might have happened? The police clearly overstepped their bounds. There wasn’t a question in my mind.
What were your reactions as you drove home afterward?
When you come out of the South as I did, out of the civil rights struggle, one part of me felt a sort of anger: ‘Boy, maybe we have not made as much progress as I thought, that the work and efforts we’ve been going through—my efforts to bring people together—were not as successful [as hoped].’ On the other side, part of me was laughing about the comment that ‘He’s from Howard County.’ I was sort of half-mad, half-laughing.
Growing up, did you and your family regularly fear for your safety, either from local authorities or others?
I felt very clearly that you were in a different class. But I never went around the community thinking that my life was in danger, or that there was some obvious threat to me. You have to keep in mind that in many places in the South, and especially where I lived, segregation was more psychological than physical because you worked with people of a different race on a day-to-day basis. Oftentimes you played with them. But there was a psychological and emotional segregation that I think has a much more damning impact on you. You have this stigma in your mind about your ability to achieve. I never saw, until I was in the first year at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a person of color—any color—in a professional position. It was a revelation.
In 1986, you became the first African-American ever elected to the Montgomery County Council. You recently said that, for much of the first part of the campaign, your literature contained no photograph of you.
One thing I did recognize in the South was that there were different treatments by whites toward African-Americans whom they were familiar with and they had developed relationships with. And maybe this is the way that people in a superior position justify their attitude toward segregation. You always had some person [about whom you] could say, ‘I have a black friend,’ or, ‘This person is almost like a member of my family.’ I saw examples that, at least on the surface, appeared to be loving and charitable. And so, in the back of my mind, I always had the belief that if people just knew me, knew my experiences, knew what I was about, knew the issues, that they would in fact be more accepting. I [didn’t] want to run the risk that the first thing they see was a picture of color. I think that emanated from my upbringing in the South.
You’ve now lived for four decades in the North. What were racial attitudes like when you first got here?
Attitudes in the North that arise around race have been more subtle, not to suggest that they are not as damning: Someone may not get the job, or they may not get a promotion—and the justification for it is subtle, and said with a smile. Whereas in the South, I think that people were probably being a little more honest and oftentimes people would talk about those differences. When initially I came north, you felt it, you sensed it, but it was not as obvious.
President Obama has said that this country has come a long way on the issue of race, but still has a significant way to travel. Do you share that view?
I would add that we have come a very long way. I come from the depth of segregation, Jim Crow. But there is still work ahead of us. And that work includes not just looking at the question of race and ethnicity, but this question of poverty. [We need] to overcome the barriers of the stereotypes and whatever prejudice that exists. It presents a very difficult and unique challenge for us going forward.