A couple of weeks ago Baltimore City Del. Keiffer Mitchell openly wept on the floor of the House while the Maryland Gay Marriage Bill – that he introduced – was being debated.
Mitchell, a first-year delegate but a veteran of Baltimore politics, said the tears began to flow when his colleague Del. Luke Clippinger “came out” in the midst of the debate, which at times became vitriolic.
Ultimately, despite the hopes and hard work of its supporters, the bill – which passed in the Senate – died during the session without a vote in the House and was sent back to the Judiciary Committee.
Gay marriage advocates have engineered hard-fought battles that have established gay marriage laws in five states and the District of Columbia. Four of those states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont – are nestled in the farthest Northeastern corner of the country and the fifth, Iowa, is politically one of the most fiercely independent.
Supporters of the movement perhaps saw Maryland – characterized as one of the bluest of blue states – as fertile ground for their next victory. That coupled with the state’s progressive history on some civil rights matters may have seemed like a favorable combination for their cause.
But they may have miscalculated. Maryland’s storied civil rights past is a sometimes maniacal mix of Southern and Northern, progressive and conservative, which confounded many as they fought for freedoms.
University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, perhaps the nation’s foremost expert on Thurgood Marshall and the civil rights battles he waged, has an intimate knowledge of the state’s social and racial dynamics.
He has referred to “Maryland’s schizophrenic nature” when it comes to matters of race. “Not quite Northern, but not fully Southern,” Gibson has said. And that duality has long been part of the civil rights narrative of “The Old Line State.” It’s a narrative to which Mitchell’s family has contributed mightily.
His great uncle, the legendary Clarence Mitchell Jr., was part of an early desegregation battle that foreshadowed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
In 1933, he and Harold Arthur Seaborne applied to the all-White University of Maryland as part of an organized effort between the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and the Baltimore AFRO American Newspaper to desegregate the school. Two years later in 1935, Donald Gaines Murray was admitted to the University of Maryland’s Law School marking the nation’s first school desegregation victory. And it was the first legal victory in Thurgood Marshall’s fabled legal career.
But, despite that victory, Maryland’s president Henry “Curly” Byrd – still one of the school’s most celebrated figures – methodically dragged his feet for 15 years to keep the College Park campus all-White.
And the state’s flagship university managed to systematically keep Blacks off of the College Park campus until Keiffer Mitchell’s great uncle Parren Mitchell, another civil rights icon, desegregated it in 1950. The school didn’t integrate College Park housing until the 1960s.
And despite other groundbreaking civil rights victories connected to pay equity for Black teachers and their White counterparts in the 1930s and early public accommodations breakthroughs in the 1950s, Maryland’s “schizophrenic nature” was still evident.
As he traveled through the southern part of the state during his early legal years in the 1930s, Marshall would often lament the similarities between Southern Maryland and the Deep South.
“A study was made by the Urban League around 1930, which showed that segregation in Baltimore was more rigid than any other city in the country, including Jackson, Miss.,” Marshall once said. “I know this is almost unbelievable, but it’s true.”
Indeed, legal segregation in the United States was born in Baltimore when in May 1911 Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool signed into law the nation’s first segregation ordinance. And to this day Baltimore remains one of the most segregated cities in America.
The point is Maryland in many ways is more Southern than Northern—always has been and perhaps always will be, especially when it comes to issues of race and culture. And to my knowledge there are no Southern states where gay marriage legislation is in play.
Perhaps, that’s why Baltimore County Del. Emmett Burns – a native of Mississippi and an opponent of gay marriage – with glee and confidence declared in February, “Let it be known that they may win in the Senate, they may win in the House, but when the history of this fight is over, we shall and we will win on referendum.”
Ultimately, it seems, Burns may understand the hard core polemics of race and culture better than any member of the Maryland General Assembly.