It’s entirely appropriate that the bigoted antics of Alabama’s conservative, publicity-hound Chief Justice Roy S. Moore in unsuccessfully trying to block the right of same-sex couples to marry there erupted in February – Black History Month.
For his actions that briefly led some of the state’s 68 probate judges to not issue licenses to same-sex couples while other state judges did so underscore an enduring dynamic of American history as a whole and one of the central lessons of Black Americans’ centuries-long freedom struggle.
First, Moore’s ploy reminds us—as do such things as the controversy surrounding America’s crisis of undocumented immigration; and the continued rejection by some of Muslim Americans as American citizens; and the Republican Party’s efforts to suppress Blacks’ right to vote—how controversial issues of citizenship have always been.
And they again cast into sharp relief a central lesson of the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s—and of Barack Obama’s election and re-election to the presidency: Just because you achieve significant victories does not mean the forces of bigotry will disappear. It does not mean the struggle is over.
Indeed, the turmoil of America’s post-1960s decades, and especially the last ten years, point to just the opposite reality: That is that even as the victories expand the “space” for tolerance, the forces of bigotry work even harder to maintain the barriers of exclusion.
The most dramatic example of that dynamic over the past decade has been conservatives’ furious and in many instances deranged reaction to the Obama presidency. Close behind has been their opposition to the increased support of the right of gays and lesbians to marry as other American do. The advance of that latter sentiment has been nothing short of extraordinary since the ruling of Massachusetts’ highest state court legalizing same-sex marriage there provoked numerous conservative-dominated states to approve constitutional amendments banning it.
In 2003, only 40 percent of Americans approved of same-sex marriage. By last May, however, support for same-sex marriage reached a high-water mark of 55 percent. Even more stunning were the advances made in legalizing same-sex marriage. In 2013 gays and lesbians could be legally married in only 17 states and the District of Columbia. However, by late 2014, propelled by a flurry of federal court orders striking down states’ constitutional bans against it, same-sex marriage had become legal in an additional 20 states.
Now, it’s widely expected that this June the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm those federal court decisions in a landmark case it accepted for review last fall. Even though oral arguments in that case won’t be heard until the spring, the High Court sent a strong signal of its intent last week in rebuffing Moore’s gambit in Alabama and allowing marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples there.
So, one might say a complete victory for legalizing same-sex marriage is at hand. Of course, that will not be a happy moment for those Black Americans who oppose legalizing such unions—just as it won’t be for opponents of other backgrounds. And, it must be said, as several polls have shown, that Black opposition to homosexuality and lesbianism is qualitatively different from that of the White opposition. That’s the reason anti-gay and lesbian sentiment has no significant impact on Black political activity.
But it will be a happy moment for the Black freedom struggle overall, because that struggle has been immeasurably aided over the last decade by the coalescing of the debate about the rights due those one may call “outsider Americans”—not just gays and lesbians and the groups mentioned above, but white women, too. This is the debate over America’s future as a multiracial, multicultural nation, one whose “outsiders” are demanding “in” on terms satisfactory to them.
The rise of this new American society—which, of course, is still very much in formation—has underscored a fundamental point about bigotry. It’s almost always all-inclusive: Those who express bigotry against one group of people “different” from them are likely to be bigoted against others who are different in different ways as well.
That means that “outsider Americans” must pledge allegiance to a fundamental principle: full citizenship and equal rights for all.
Author’s Note: In a recent column on the film “Selma,” I mistakenly stated that two Black teenagers, Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, were murdered by Whites in the aftermath of the Selma-to-Montgomery March in March 1965. In fact, they were murdered by Whites in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963 in the turmoil in that city that followed the infamous bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com