Born of a need for change in a city worn down by prejudice and racism, the members of Baltimore’s Goon Squad had just one goal: to replace discrimination with equality.
What began as an 11-man group during the turbulent late 20th century is down to three. But the survivors reflected recently, they succeeded more than they failed–even though the city still grapples with some of the issues that brought them together.
This week at the University of Baltimore professors, students, members of the religious community and leaders of community organizations celebrated the work of the Goon Squad, more than four decades after the civil and human rights organization began.
The afternoon of conversations came just weeks after the deaths of the Rev. Vernon N. Dobson, a founding member who passed away on Jan. 26 and the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, who died at age 87 last May.
“We wanted to see if we could make the world a little better than how we found it,” said Homer Favor, former director of urban studies at Morgan State University, as he sat between fellow founding members Lalit H. Gadhia and O. Patrick Scott.
Favor told those gathered that the Goon Squad was an informal group of determined and dedicated men without a formal charter or elected officers. “None of this was planned- it was a spontaneous coming together of wills,” he said.
“There was never a meeting called- never a reading of minutes- no bylaws- it was understood that once you were on the Goon Squad you were always a Goon Squad member- your chair would be there.”
For roughly an hour and a half the three men laughed, recollected, and shared some of the more somber moments of the group’s creation, their work in the community and the uphill battles they faced.
“We stood for freedom, equality, and justice,” said Gadhia to the audience on Sunday as he sat on a panel led by Raymond A. Winbush, author and director of Morgan State University’s Institute of Urban Research, and Mark Steiner, a talk show host on radio station WEAA-FM.
The group became known for their fights for equal employment, education, and justice and at least one of the surviving members recalls that the name –the Goon Squad—grew from a newspaper article that accused them of being thugs rather than forward-thinking activists.
Gadhia, a lawyer and statistician, helped form the group after emigrating from India. Once in Baltimore, he said he became involved in local politics in 1961 with the help of Favor.
At the time, the group reflected Black Baltimore’s best and brightest social thinkers and advocates, including Joseph C. Howard, a judge who served on the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City from 1968 to 1979, and later as a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Maryland, 1979 to 2000; Parren J. Mitchell, the first Black member of Maryland’s congressional delegation; Morgan State professor Augustus “Gus” Adair and several influential local faith leaders, such as the Revs. Frank L. Williams, Wendell H. Phillips, and Harold L. Dobson Sr.
“Each one had peculiar strengths and shared those willingly with each other, almost like a social group going bowling, but somewhere along the lines the questions came up pertaining to our times and our situations,” said Favor, an economist and Morgan faculty member.
The men agreed that they were successful in helping desegregate Baltimore, but some of the issues they faced in the mid- to late 1960s are still prevalent today.
“The city looks like a Third World place and it’s something that didn’t happen suddenly- it’s been doing that for about 50 years,” said Scott, an artist who became involved with the Goon Squad after answering a request to photograph members Howard and Mitchell. “It’s hard to say exactly what that means.”
Gadhia paralleled Martin Luther King Jr.’s last stand in Memphis, Tenn. to advance the plight of sanitation workers with Baltimore sanitation workers and their unions fighting the privatization of their industry, which could reduce their wages.
“Most definitely a lot of the issues are the same- especially with voter registration,” said Brion Gill, 22, a teacher at Lakeland Elementary and Middle School.
Gill said many of the voter identification laws passed in recent years have, like past tactics, resulted in suppressing voter turnout.
“That’s the work that we cut out for us- These issues are still prevalent because we haven’t found a way to institutionalize the change that we make instead of letting it change back over time,” she said.
Gill joined other members of the local youth organization and political action committee, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, as they and others participated in a question-and-answer period with the founders.
“These men, all of them, have stayed true to the cause to this day, and at their dying breaths,” said Steiner, who at age 14 met members of the Goon Squad and was quickly taken under their wings.
“They were all huge men in their own right, but they understood what it meant to work as a collective,” said Steiner. “They were leaders in the truest sense of the word.”