Marvin Mandel, Maryland's desegregation pioneer, dies at 95

The man who desegregated Maryland is gone, more than half a century after his greatest achievement.

Marvin Mandel was Maryland’s first Jewish governor and the first to challenge the racist laws that had defined his state since Reconstruction. He also was the first to endure a noisy divorce while in office. He was a character who shaped history and changed the lives of millions of black citizens.

Before becoming chief executive, Mandel was Speaker of Maryland’s House of Delegates, from 1963 to 1969. He did plenty in both offices on behalf of “making African Americans full partners as citizens,” former lieutenant governor Michael Steele recalled.

“Maryland was very much a border state in the fight over civil rights,” Mandel told me in 2009 for a book that I helped him write — I’ll Never Forget it: Memoirs of a Political Accident from East Baltimore.

Mandel remembered a small way that he advanced this struggle. One day, he received a call from delegate Murray Abramson, a friend who described a “terrible problem.” Abramson had “called over to the Maryland Inn to make reservations for [newly elected delegate] Irma Dixon and her husband.” But, he was informed, “they don’t serve blacks.”

“I can’t tell her, she just got sworn into the legislature, that she can’t get lunch!” Abramson said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“I said I’d take care of it,” Mandel recalled. He had his secretary make reservations for 10, then marched in with the Dixons in tow.

“So they just served us, and that was the end, really, of segregation at the Maryland Inn. The next day, anybody could get served. It was just a question of breaking down the thin line that made segregation possible.”

“The whole state,” Mandel quipped, “was a little harder, though.”

Under his speakership, Maryland became the first Southern state to enact a public-accommodation law. It took two bites at the apple to accomplish this. The legislature passed a limited statute in 1963, which exempted some counties, and a full, statewide bill the following year.

Theodore McKeldin, former Republican governor and Baltimore mayor, backed Mandel’s measure. That city’s Afro-American newspaper noted that General Assembly Republicans initially pushed their own, tougher public-accommodations bill. It featured larger fines and jail time for those guilty of racial discrimination.

While Mandel praised then-Governor Millard Tawes for helping to enact the final measure, the speaker had to count votes, and crack skulls, to assure bipartisan passage.

Just before one critical vote, the bill’s sponsors were two delegates short. “The governor called a meeting and asked, ‘What could we do?’” Mandel remembered. “I said, ‘Governor, we’ve got three votes on Somerset County, your county. Three delegates. And we’re going to have to get it from there.’ He said, ‘That’s political suicide for those delegates.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s the only place.’”

The three Somerset delegates hung together and backed the bill. One delegate avoided the vote “because his tomato plants were having problems,” but they ultimately only needed two to pass the measure.

“That didn’t go over well with some people,” Mandel said.

“On the corner opposite the State House, there was a restaurant facing us. When we passed the public-accommodations bill, the owner stood in the doorway with a rifle and said he wasn’t going to allow anybody in that he didn’t want to serve.”

Mandel added, though not vindictively: “The property was later condemned. It’s gone now.”

Beyond civil rights, Mandel consolidated 248 agencies into 11 cabinet-level departments. He also boosted school- and mass-transit spending, but kept taxes relatively low.

More notoriously, Mandel divorced his wife and married his mistress while running for re-election in 1974. He spent months away from office, wrangling with his spouse over a settlement. Nonetheless, Mandel scored about two-thirds of the vote that November.

Mandel faced two public-corruption trials as governor and eventually was convicted of mail fraud and failure to render “honest public service.”

Coupled with that’s state’s one-time chief-executive Spiro Agnew’s Watergate-era, graft-fueled resignation from the U.S. vice-presidency, musician Gil Scott-Heron complained: “Somebody tell these Maryland Governors to be for real!”

Mandel served 19 months behind bars before President Reagan commuted his sentence. A Supreme Court decision overturned his conviction.

Last week, a who’s who of Maryland politics shuffled past Mandel’s body after he died at age 95. Those who paid their respects as he lay in state at the Annapolis State House included fellow former Democratic governors Harry Hughes and Parris Glendening. Republican mourners includes current Governor Larry Hogan and Maryland’s last Republican governor/lieutenant governor team: Bob Ehrlich and Michael Steele.

Steele, Maryland’s first black lieutenant governor, praised its first Jewish governor. “This was a transformative guy,” Steele told Urban News Service. The more he got to know Mandel, Steele said, the more “my admiration and respect for him grew.”