Marriage equality and civil rights

Recent polls show that the margin of support for same-sex marriage has increased in recent weeks, with one survey showing that 57 percent of Maryland voters now say they're likely to support the state's same-sex marriage law if, as expected, it is put on the ballot as a referendum question in November.

What's notable, however, is that most of the shift has been the result of changing attitudes among African-Americans, traditionally one of the most conservative groups on the issue. But in the weeks since President Barack Obama and the NAACP both endorsed marriage equality as a civil right, attitudes among black voters have undergone a nearly 180-degree change.

That's generally in line with national surveys that have found overall support for legalizing same-sex marriages got a bump after Mr. Obama told an interviewer last month that he thought gays should have the right to marry. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, showed 53 percent of Americans now think gay marriage should be legal, while only 39 percent oppose it, the lowest proportion ever and a sharp turnaround from six years ago.

But the shift in attitudes among blacks is especially significant, not only because it has been much larger than the change among whites but also because it suggests that, coming after Mr. Obama's remarks, the NAACP's endorsement of gay marriage has given the nation's oldest civil rights organization a renewed relevance that may have an immediate impact if Maryland's same-sex marriage law is brought to referendum.

A Public Policy Polling survey released last week found that 55 percent of black voters in Maryland now support the state's same-sex marriage law, with only 36 percent planning to oppose it. That's almost a complete reversal of previous polls, when 56 percent of blacks said they opposed gay marriage and only 39 percent supported it. Given that African-Americans make up about a quarter of Maryland's electorate, the 20-point shift in their support — if it holds up — could well be the decisive margin that pushes Maryland's new law over the top in November.

The shift in black support for marriage equality in Maryland reflects a nationwide trend. The Washington Post-ABC News poll also found that 59 percent of African-Americans now support legalizing same-sex marriage (albeit based on a relatively small sample size), up from 41 percent before Mr. Obama's announcement. The percentage of blacks who support marriage equality is now higher than that of Americans overall.

The NAACP deserves a lot of the credit for the emergence of this more expansive conception of social justice among blacks that sees marriage equality for gays as a logical extension of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s into the contemporary era. Guided by NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Chairwoman Roslyn Brock — both the youngest leaders ever to hold the organization's two top positions — the group has pushed many of its most socially conservative members to embrace gay rights as part of its historic mission to fight bigotry and injustice in all its forms, starting two years ago when it made common cause with gay rights advocates to oppose the discriminatory"don't ask, don't tell" policyon gays in the military.

We wrote at the time that it was wrong to make gay servicemen and women lie about who they were in order to serve their country, and that the arguments against allowing gays to serve openly in the military were eerily reminiscent of the reasons given for forbidding black soldiers from serving alongside whites in the armed forces. The end of racial segregation in the military in 1948 marked the beginning of the end for segregation in all spheres of American life over the decades that followed, and the abandonment of "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010 likewise set the stage for today's debate over equal rights for gays.

Neither of these developments happened overnight, and neither could have occurred without the tireless work of the NAACP and its century-long commitment to the principle of equal justice for all under the law.

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