Fifty years ago this week, on August 28, segregation took a holiday and marched on Washington. The buses ferrying marchers from Maryland left in their rear-view mirrors one of the most segregated states in America. Today, it is one of the most polychromatic, integrated and Democratic. The advance of civil rights and the ascent of Democrats in Maryland are like tightly braided parallel strands. So how did an anthropologically backwater state achieve such a breakout status?
Consider this: A half century ago, on the very same day that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his epic speech, Maryland’s public accommodations were off limits to blacks; the nine Eastern Shore counties regularly exempted themselves from any effort to integrate Maryland’s public facilities; black legislators couldn’t stay in hotels or eat in restaurants in the state capital; blacks couldn’t try on clothes in departments stores; rest rooms were segregated; riots flashed cross the Eastern Shore town of Cambridge; State Police attack dogs snapped at college students demonstrating in Princess Anne because banks refused to process their checks; Alabama Gov. Gorge C. Wallace came within 50,000 votes of defeating presidential proxy Sen. Daniel B. Brewster in 1964 and, in 1972, even won the state’s presidential primary; perennial marplot George P. Mahoney won the 1966 Democratic primary for governor with a campaign slogan—“Your home is your Castle”—that was widely viewed as racist; no one but property owners could vote in Ocean City; Dunbar High School students were arrested for picketing segregated Chinese restaurants along Baltimore’s Park Ave.; Saturday afternoon drive-bys spotlighted Maryland internationally because restaurants along Route 40 refused to serve African diplomats traveling between Washington and the United Nations in New York; Sam Setta made segregation fashionable at his Easton motel, the Wishing Well, by running for Congress as an ally of George Wallace; and Spiro T. Agnew eased his way into the heart of Richard M. Nixon and the vice presidency by berating black leaders following the riots provoked by the 1968 assassination of King.
Then two historic events occurred: President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. (The Supreme Court recently eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, leaving states free to adopt their own requirements unless Congress revises and updates the formula for enforcing Title 5 of the act.)
Though Maryland has always been predominantly Democratic by heritage and tradition, if not conviction—there have been only three Republican governors since 1950—the state voted twice for Dwight Eisenhower, once for Richard M. Nixon, twice for Ronald Reagan, and it’s most ardently good-government county, Montgomery, where Democrats reign two-one, has elected only two Democrats to Congress since 1960, Michael D. Barnes, and Chris Van Hollen Jr. (Democrat John Dulaney joined the delegation in 2013 as a result of re-drawn Congressional map, though his Sixth District includes only a piece of Montgomery and all of Western Maryland.)
But the velocity of history carries an audacious message. Today, the Maryland of 2013 is arguably the most liberal and surely among the most reliably Democratic states in America, scaling the charts past Irish-pol-cum-academic Massachusetts and mellowed-out California. Democrats had controlled the State House for 36 consecutive years, and even in electing Republican Agnew in 1966 in a rare aberrational fluke helped by break-away Democrats, the remaining three statewide offices and the General Assembly remained steadfastly in Democratic control.
Most recently, the state handed President George W. Bush a defeat by 17 percent points in 2000 and by 11 points in 2004. And in 2008 and 2012, President Barack Obama carried Maryland each time by about 26 points. Even Maryland’s Congressional delegation is divided seven-one, with Democrats on top. And after that long dry spell, the GOP again seized the moment in another departure from tradition by installing Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as only the third Republican governor in 63 years, more by dint of the flawed candidacy of his opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, than any seismic political shift. And Ehrlich did it with a black understudy, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who provided little help in attracting black votes. (Ehrlich was rebuffed by the voters 2010 in an attempt to recapture the office he lost to Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2006.)
Yet even with the election of Republican Ehrlich, as was the case with Agnew, the General Assembly and all other statewide offices as well as most local governments remained firmly in Democratic hands, although Republicans managed to pick up a dozen seats in the legislature but fell short of their numerical goals in subsequent elections. Even Ehrlich’s cabinet and his closet advisers were scattered with Democrats. And face it, he couldn’t have won without a hefty share of Democrats. Following Ehrlich’s inauguration in 2003, at least half a dozen Democratic municipal officials experienced public epiphanies and were reborn as Republicans, yet there was no significant shift in voter registrations to reflect the new GOP administration. In fact, Republican voter registration took a numerical dive during Ehrlich’s four years as governor.
There are 44 black members of the General Assembly out of a total of 188, all now living and eating at the same accommodations as their white colleagues in Annapolis; the Maryland Court of Appeals had a black chief judge, the recently retired Robert Bell; a statue of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was once rejected by the University of Maryland Law School because he was black, stands on Lawyers’ Mall in front of the historic State House; Cambridge is calm and integrated; the state’s anti-miscegenation law has been repealed; the Eastern Shore is now a grudging partner with the rest of Maryland; Prince George’s County is host to the wealthiest black enclave in America, Mitchellville, as well as the largest minority population—75.7 percent—in the state; and in 1964, Maryland’s hotels, restaurants, theaters, stores, beaches and other recreational facilities were fully desegregated by the unlikeliest of governors, J. Millard Tawes, of the Eastern Shore’s Somerset County, who had earlier ordered State Police to unleash their dogs on students in his own primeval bog of a county. Tawes employed a simple stratagem: Under federal pressure, he summoned Eastern Shore lawmakers to his office one by one and told them that the U.S. attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy—father of Maryland’s former lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend—planned to install U.S. Marshalls in each of the nine counties unless they desegregated their public establishments.
The eminent pollster of the 1960s and 70s, Joseph Napolitan, observed at the time that he had conducted polls in every state in the nation “and the Eastern Shore is the most conservative place I’ve seen in America.”
Liberal and Democrat are not necessarily interchangeable nouns, but they seem to fit Maryland as a whole if not many of its independent parts. And as every political hobbyist knows, the new axis of liberalism in Maryland involves only three of its 24 subdivisions—Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in the Maryland suburbs around the District of Columbia—homes to the bulk of the state’s black population, its army of government workers, many union members and the highest concentration of Ph.D.s on the planet. The Democratic party in Maryland is clustered along I-95.
And therein lies the tale of Maryland’s evolution, from a benighted conservative state, schizophrenic from the competing tugs of southern traditions and northern allegiances to a progressively liberal Democratic thumb in the eye of Republicans and conservatives on its rural rim. But the journey owes not so much to street-warrior incendiaries such as H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Gloria Richardson as it does to Republican Theodore R. McKeldin, Lilly May Jackson, the black pulpits, and, yes, even the legendary black entrepreneur William “Little Willie” Adams, who helped to educate promising young blacks and fought for black appointments to high government positions. And yes, a large degree of the transformation traces to the liberal Jews in the General Assembly and in City Hall as well as the wealthy Jews outside of government who provided financial support to the NAACP in the fight for racial parity. The late political entrepreneur Irv Kovens, for example, was an early honoree as NAACP man of the year for his checkbook support.
It was Marvin Mandel, as House Speaker, who rammed the public accommodations law through the House of Delegates with the support of Jewish lawmakers and the handful of black legislators who were elected on the ticket of the political boss, James H. Jack Pollack. And it was Mandel and other Jewish legislators who led the fight to integrate the Maryland Inn, then one of only two hotels in Annapolis, and forced its management to accept black legislators under the threat of a total boycott by members of the General Assembly.
Fifty years ago, the black population of Maryland was 17 percent. Today it is upwards of 33 percent and climbing, the largest black population of any state outside the Deep South. Baltimore City’s black population is 69 percent, due largely to white (as well as middle class black) flight to the surrounding counties. In Prince George’s County, the black population is 65 percent, ever increasing because of the movement of blacks from the District of Columbia and employment opportunities with the federal government. Even xenophobic Montgomery County, tightly zoned in the 1930s to prevent it from developing into the same asphalt meta-maze as neighboring Prince George’s, now has a black population of 18 percent, more than double that of a decade ago. Montgomery’s total minority population is about 50 percent, and the county contains half the state’s Asian (14 percent) and Latino (18 percent) populations.
And Baltimore County, once among the most segregated counties in Maryland, contains the largest growth in black population of any non-black majority county in the nation. Baltimore County even recently elected its first black County Council member, Kenneth Oliver. Tiny Garrett County, abutting the western flank of Pennsylvania, five decades ago had only six black residents. Today its black population is 1.6 percent. In 1960, Maryland’s population was 3.6 million. Today, the state’s total population is 5.8 million, and in addition to Maryland’s high side of 33 percent black population, six percent of its residents are Asian and 8.7 percent are Hispanic—the fastest growing ethnic group in America. And the new arrivals tend to favor Democrats. Simply put, color is no longer an open issue in mosaic Maryland.
Massachusetts, by contrast, is only five percent black, with a black population of under 300,000. Two urban centers, Baltimore and Boston, are ebony and ivory contrasts. Baltimore is 69 percent black, and the city of Boston is as white as Wonder Bread. Simply put, Massachusetts politics is a protocol standoff between high-tech Yankee Republican WASPs—traditionally the Saltonstalls, the Lodges and the Hatches—and Irish Democrats such as Tip O’Neill and the Kennedys. Massachusetts has voted successively for three Republican governors as well as twice for Ronald Reagan.
It is a tautology that blacks are fiercely Democratic. So consider it a twist that the party of Lincoln is now the party of Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton—and Barack Obama—forgetful that that it was the 1960s white Maryland Republican cohort of McKeldin, Charles McC Mathias Jr., J. Glenn Beall Jr., along with Walter Black Jr., Kitty Massenberg, David Shay, and blacks Marshall Jones and Archie Jones (no relationship), and others long-gone who were, under the flag of Rockefeller Republicans, the true civil rights liberals of the era while the Democrats had to be dragged into the movement by federal marshals and legal threats. John F. Kennedy reluctantly opened the way for full civil rights in America, although he once refused to meet with King.
And it was Lyndon Johnson, following Kennedy’s assassination, who rammed through the most significant civil rights legislation of the era, albeit warning Democrats that they would lose forever the once reliable South as a result. In Maryland, the effect was the reverse. In fact, Republican McKeldin endorsed Democrat Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964. To return the favor, Johnson offered to appoint McKeldin mayor of the District of Columbia.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” McKeldin replied at the time. “But that job should go to a black.” And so it did, to Walter Washington, the District’s first black mayor. (Back then, the president appointed the District’s mayor.)
Superimpose on the growing black population with its Democratic loyalties the huge government establishment in Maryland. Fully 20 percent—or 472,000 workers—of the total Maryland workforce of 2.4 million are employed by some level of government; federal, state or local. To eat right, they vote right. The bulk of them are vested in the system through civil service, and the remainder are political appointees. And because Democrats control government in Maryland pretty much across the board, the workforce reflects the political inclinations of the one-party employer. Government employees come in two flavors, civil service or political appointee. The synchronicity tends to be Democratic.
Montgomery County reflects another political anomaly—glandular politics. Because of the Hatch Act, the male of the species who worked for the federal government was prevented from engaging in overt political activity. So the women of the county, both Republican and Democrat, organized and ran county politics while the men were downtown in the District working to bring home the pork chop. Thus, the county has had as many women as men in government at all levels. And the powerhouse in Montgomery County politics was not a mannerly smoke-free back room but the Women’s Democratic Club.
Finally, while union membership across the country is down measurably, membership is up and growing in service sector unions, especially AFSME and other government-related unions. Statewide membership in the AFL-CIO is about 350,000, with roughly another 50,000 card-carriers in unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Many black workers in Prince George’s County and Baltimore are card-carrying AFSME members. And with a helping hand from Former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), AFSME was granted broad new organizing powers in state government as well as on Maryland state university and college campuses. Teachers’ unions also won significant new negotiating powers from Glendening as well. O’Malley has expanded still other union powers in addition to keeping them happy with state construction projects. In a sophisticated bit of symmetry, the Maryland AFL-CIO has a black president, Fred Mason, as well as its first female secretary-treasurer, Donna Edwards, former president of AFSME.
Because Maryland is joined at the hip with the nation’s capital, the first ripples of social change arrive in the state either by mandate or by state efforts to mimic federal actions. And through it all, Maryland has been under one-party rule, giving Democrats the power to perpetuate themselves through patronage, redistricting, liberal legislation and total domination of the processes of government.