“Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”
Coretta Scott King, 25th anniversary luncheon for Lambda Defense and Education Fund, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1998
Recently a friend informed me that in the state of Maine, a proposition is on the ballot to try to outlaw gay marriages. Last year, I spent a lot of time researching arguments against Proposition 8 and found in the website by the gay evangelical group Soulforce several quotes from leaders of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and I will use them for this blog. All speak powerfully of the injustice of discrimination in any form, whether it be because of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. As the above quote by Coretta Scott King notes, many gays and lesbians participated in the great Civil Rights battles from the 1940s to the 1960s. Among them were Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington in 1963, and James Baldwin, the famous writer.
Coretta Scott King was the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. and a strong advocate of civil rights in her own right. In 1964 Coretta lobbied hard for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King’s activism focused on womens’ rights, LGBT rights, economic issues, world peace and various other issues. In the 1980s King participated in a series of sit-in protests against apartheid in South Africa. An advocate of peace, King was one of the founders of The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. She was also vocal in her opposition of capital punishment and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Talking about her advocacy of LGBT rights, Coretta Scott King noted in a speech at the 13th annual Creating Change conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Atlanta, Georgia, November 9, 2000:
“We have a lot of work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say ‘common struggle,’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry & discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”
John Lewis was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. He organized sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters in Nashville, Tenessee and he volunteered in the Freedom Rides, where he went on desegregated bus rides to protest the segregation of interstate travel in the South. From 1963 to 1966 Lewis was the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and through that group, organized the voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Lewis was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since that time.The October 25, 2003 Boston Globe quotes Lewis:
“From time to time, America comes to a crossroads. With confusion and controversy, it’s hard to spot that moment. We need cool heads, warm hearts, and America’s core principles to cleanse away the distractions.
We are now at such a crossroads over same-sex couples’ freedom to marry. It is time to say forthrightly that the government’s exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from civil marriage officially degrades them and their families. It denies them the basic human right to marry the person they love. It denies them numerous legal protections for their families.
This discrimination is wrong. We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.
Some say let’s choose another route and give gay folks some legal rights but call it something other than marriage. We have been down that road before in this country. Separate is not equal. The rights to liberty and happiness belong to each of us and on the same terms, without regard to either skin color or sexual orientation.
Some say they are uncomfortable with the thought of gays and lesbians marrying. But our rights as Americans do not depend on the approval of others. Our rights depend on us being Americans.
Sometimes it takes courts to remind us of these basic principles. In 1948, when I was 8 years old, 30 states had bans on interracial marriage, courts had upheld the bans many times, and 90 percent of the public disapproved of those marriages, saying they were against the definition of marriage, against God’s law. But that year, the California Supreme Court became the first court in America to strike down such a ban. Thank goodness some court finally had the courage to say that equal means equal, and others rightly followed, including the US Supreme Court 19 years later.
Some stand on the ground of religion, either demonizing gay people or suggesting that civil marriage is beyond the Constitution. But religious rites and civil rights are two separate entities. What’s at stake here is legal marriage, not the freedom of every religion to decide on its own religious views and ceremonies.
I remember the words of John Kennedy when his presidential candidacy was challenged because of his faith: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials — and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
Those words ring particularly true today. We hurt our fellow citizens and our community when we deny gay people civil marriage and its protections and responsibilities. Rather than divide and discriminate, let us come together and create one nation. We are all one people. We all live in the American house. We are all the American family. Let us recognize that the gay people living in our house share the same hopes, troubles, and dreams. It’s time we treated them as equals, as family.”
Rev. Bob Graetz was the only white minister to march with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956. Their participation in the boycott made them targets of much harassment, as their house was twice the target of firebombings. Reverand Graetz and his wife Jeannie served an all-black Lutheran congregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Today Rev. Graetz and his wife serve as instructors at The Soulforce Institute for Nonviolent Change. Rev. Graetz said:
“We are a retired Lutheran pastor and spouse, whose oldest son was born gay, and who at the age of 37 died with AIDS. Having spent years coming to grips with and trying to understand the concept of homosexuality, we have ultimately come to recognize this condition as a special gift of God conveyed to some of his carefully selected daughters and sons. We have come to know personally thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. And we have also become convinced that this condition is part of the ‘creative given’ rather than a personal choice by those individuals.”
“We have spent most of our lives struggling against the oppression of African-Americans and other groups within our society who are the objects of discrimination and prejudice. And we consider our ministry with and for the GLBT community to be an extension of that life-long commitment.”
Rev. Dr. James Lawson is a distinguished United Methodist pastor who worked side-by-side with Dr. King training the activists who participated in the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides of the 1960s. He has continued to train activists in nonviolence and to work in support of a number of causes, including immigrants’ rights in the United States and the rights of Palestinians, opposition to the war in Iraq, and workers’ rights to a living wage. In 2004, he received the Community of Christ International Peace Award. Rev. Lawson said of the plight of many homosexuals:
“Gays and lesbians have a more difficult time than we did. We had our families and our churches on our side. All too often, they have neither.”
Julian Bond was a founding member of SNCC in 1960. While a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he helped organize a sit-in movement at Atlanta University. In 1965 Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, but the members of the House would not seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Bond was elected two more times before the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Georgia House had violated Bond’s rights in refusing him his seat. Since 1998, Julian Bond has served as Chairman of the Board of the NAACP and is on the board of directors of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Julian Bond said at the 2008 Creating Change Conference:
“That’s why when I am asked, ‘Are gay rights civil rights?’ my answer is always, ‘Of course they are.'”
“Rights for gays and lesbians are not ‘special rights’ in any way. It isn’t “special” to be free from discrimination — that’s an ordinary, universal entitlement of citizenship.”
“No parallels between movements for rights is exact. African-Americans are the only Americans who were enslaved for more than two centuries, and people of color carry the badge of who we are on our faces. But we are far from the only people suffering discrimination — sadly, so do many others. They deserve the law’s protection and they deserve civil rights too. Sexual disposition parallels race — I was born black and I had no choice. I couldn’t and wouldn’t change if I could. Like race, our sexuality isn’t a preference — it is immutable, unchangeable, and the Constitution protects us against prejudices based on immutable differences.”
In 1963, Richard and Mildred Loving, an African American and white interracial couple, decided to challenge the miscegenation laws of Virginia and this eventually lead to a Supreme Court ruling that overturned the ban on interracial marriages in the United States. The Lovings married in Washington D.C. to avoid Virginia’s miscegenation laws, but when they returned to their home state, they were arrested in their bedroom for living together as an interracial couple. The judge suspended the case as long as the Lovings left Virginia for 25 years. They eventually took their case to the Supreme Court and in 1967, the Court unanimously decided that miscegenation laws was against the Fourteenth Amendments’ goals of equality.
Richard Loving died in 1975 when he was struck by a drunk driver. Mildred Loving survived and lived until May 2, 2008, when she died on pneumonia. On June 12, 2007, the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, Mildred Loving issued a statement which said:
“My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone, they have a right to marry.
Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.
I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”