BWI One Step Closer to Changing Its Name
Ehrlich Signs Law to Add 'Thurgood Marshall' to Maryland Airport's Title

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005; B01

Maryland's largest airport would be renamed in honor of the late Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first black Supreme Court justice, under legislation signed into law yesterday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

The law calls for the airport to be christened the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, in recognition of the Baltimore native's contribution to the civil rights movement as a lawyer, activist and judge. A three-member state panel on which Ehrlich sits must give the change final approval, which is expected later this year.

"I am sure that every member of the Marshall family will rejoice with this, and so will millions across the country," said civil rights activist Dorothy Height, speaking on behalf of the justice's family during a ceremony that drew several hundred people to a plaza outside the State House in Annapolis, where a statue of Marshall as a young lawyer stands.

The new name, which comes at a time of growth for the state-owned airport, would probably first be evident through sign changes within the airport. BWI would retain its internationally known three-letter locator code, and some at yesterday's ceremony said they expect the airport still would be commonly known by the name it has carried since 1973.

But advocates said adding Marshall's name would ensure that future generations learn of his place in history. Passage of the legislation became a leading priority for many of Maryland's black lawmakers this session.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore County), the bill's lead sponsor, said that yesterday's ceremony was "the second-happiest day of my life," behind only his wedding day.

"Our purpose is to honor a great man," Burns told the crowd as his wife stood by his side. "By the addition of the name . . . generations yet unborn will ask the meaning of this -- and will be told that this governor, this lieutenant governor, this legislature chose to honor one of its own, a son of Maryland who changed the nation for all of America."

Other speakers, some of whom knew Marshall personally, recounted his role before joining the court in arguing the groundbreaking 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education , as well as his other contributions to the civil rights movement.

Civil rights lawyer Dwight Petit, who served as master of ceremonies, was represented by Marshall as a schoolboy in a case initiated in 1958 against Harford County officials, who later were forced to integrate the all-white Aberdeen High School.

In an interview, Petit said the airport's renaming honors "someone the nation has not yet given enough credit" for being "the godfather of the civil rights movement."

Although the legislation was approved by overwhelming numbers, it created some controversy during the session, which several speakers acknowledged yesterday.

The original version of the bill called for Marshall's name to appear at the beginning of the airport's name. Some thought that could undermine the BWI moniker, which has become "a franchise name," and cause confusion, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

As a compromise, the bill was amended, placing Marshall's name at the end. Legislative analysts estimate that the name change would cost the state $2.1 million, most of which would go toward changing signs in and around the airport.

In his remarks, Ehrlich mentioned the controversy but said lawmakers should put it behind them.

"Let there be no controversy," Ehrlich said. "This is the right and appropriate thing to do."

Burns credited Ehrlich for making an early pledge to sign the legislation if it reached his desk.

BWI, which was built in 1950 and originally called Friendship Airport, rivals Virginia's Dulles International Airport for busiest in the region.

The law changing BWI's name would take effect Oct. 1. The change must be approved by the Board of Public Works, a panel that consists of state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) in addition to Ehrlich. A spokesman for Kopp said she plans to support the name change, and a spokesman for Schaefer, a former governor, said he has not decided how he will vote.

Ehrlich signed dozens of other pieces of legislation into law yesterday, many dealing with health and public safety issues. They included a bill that would expand access to health care for low-income workers by expanding use of health clinics.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company