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A picture of the new South

It is a state that Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass both ran away from, a state that enslaved half its black population at the time of the Civil War. It is a state that would have seceded from the Union in 1861 if not for Abraham Lincoln's last-minute decision to impose martial law and arrest 12 members of the General Assembly to prevent them from taking a vote.

Maryland is a Southern state, as it always has been. But you could forgive a young person today for believing that the Mason-Dixon Line begins just a little farther down Interstate 95.

Indeed, modern Maryland has seen the most successful run of civil rights legislation of any state in recent history. Just last week, Maryland's House of Delegates voted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2018 and to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The latter decision is critical to reducing racial disparities in drug arrests, and it is emblematic of an emerging bipartisan consensus for "smart on crime" solutions.

These are just the most recent in an impressive string of progressive victories: From November 2012 to May 2013 — a period of just six months — Maryland extended early voting and same-day registration, passed marriage equality in the State House and then defended it at the ballot box, passed multiple gun safety laws, and became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to abolish the death penalty.

So what has happened to the state that practiced legalized segregation up until 1954?

Simply put, Maryland has ultimately embraced its inherent and increasing diversity. As one of the wealthiest and most innovative states below the Mason-Dixon, it offers a bold vision of a New South.

Like many states, Maryland's electorate has become increasingly diverse in the past decade. Between 2000 and 2010, the population share for non-Hispanic whites dropped from 62.1 percent to 54.7 percent. In those same 10 years, Maryland has remained the wealthiest state in the nation in terms of household income, partly driven by a strong black middle class in Prince George's County and elsewhere.

We have been limited for too long by an unnaturally small vision of the South as a closed society, artificially constrained by a long-lingering legacy of intentionally cultivated racial division. This vision has not served the interest of black working people, the white working class population that has always lived alongside them or the waves of immigrants that continue to arrive from Mexico and Central America.

Maryland is moving forward today because working people of all races are increasingly coming together across old lines of separation and division to move our state forward. In other words, we are succeeding because of our diversity, not in spite of it.

There is reason to believe this progressive streak will continue. Gov. Martin O'Malley prepares to leave office as a popular leader who left his state bluer than he found it. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown looks to be the most viable contender to succeed him.

What is stopping this kind of progress from happening in other southern states? Demographics are changing across the country, especially in the South. As I have argued before, only about 300,000 votes stand in the way of a Georgia that consistently votes Democratic, and there are hundreds of thousands of unregistered black and Latino voters. Other states, like Virginia and Texas, are also experiencing a demographic shift that will eventually change the states' politics for a long time.

In our democratic system, power lies in numbers, and those numbers are in favor of the civil and human rights community more and more each year. The Mason-Dixon Line still sits north of the Maryland border, but Maryland is not seceding from the South; it is demonstrating the South's future.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is a Partner at The Kapor Center for Social Impact, and former president and CEO of the NAACP. His email is BenJealous@kaporcenter.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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