|Gwendolyn Williams and Karen Cofield as newlyweds in the Bronx, New York. PHOTO CREDIT: NORWOOD NEWS
By Andrea Shorter
The fight for same sex marriage equality recently gained two mighty allies over the past few weeks. Within a matter of days after President Barack Obama announced his support for same sex marriage in a television interview, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People âs Board of Directors passed a resolution endorsing same sex marriage as a civil right.
At an annual leadership retreat in Miami, Florida, on Saturday, May 19, the historic organization held firmly to its principal mission to ensure political, educational, economic, and social equality for all, including LGBT Americans, as signified by the passage of the resolution.
In a statement released by Roslyn M. Brock, Chair of the NAACP Board of Directors, she explains the NAACPâs historic responsibility towards supporting marriage equality:
âWhen people ask why the NAACP stands firmly for marriage equality, we say that we have always stood against laws which demean, dehumanize, or discriminate against any person in this great country. That is our legacy. For over 103 years we have stood against such laws, and while the nature of the struggle may change, our bedrock commitment to equality of all people under the law never will.
One of the NAACPâs greatest leaders, Ella Baker, described this when she said and I quote: âRemember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.â End quote.â
Expectedly, numerous LGBT and civil rights leaders around the nation largely met the news of the NAACPâs declaration of same sex marriage as a civil right, as a matter of civil law, with elation and relief. âFinallyâ and âitâs about timeâ were among the more pedestrian responses peppered on Facebook walls, via Twitter, and through other viral sharing of
As the news spread, it also raised questions among supporters of marriage equality regarding the timing of the resolution: why now? Where was the NAACP before Prop 8 was passed?
And, what does this support from this premiere historic civil rights organization mean moving forward?
The NAACPâs welcomed stance on the heals of President Obamaâs announced support for marriage equality following a long, contemplative period of âpersonal evolutionâ on the matter has caused some speculation that the organizationâs actions were hastened to give the nationâs first Black President some backing on this epic, controversial matter during his bid for re-election.
The timing of the resolutionâs passage might suggest a political gesture to support the President. Still, the fact remains that well before Obamaâs long awaited enlightenment towards pro-marriage equality, the NAACP opposed proposed anti-marriage equality laws and ballot initiatives on numerous occasions -- including opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act in the mid-1990s, and the definitively epic Proposition 8 in California.
California NAACP President, Alice Huffman, and local NAACP SF Chapter President, Reverend Dr. Amos Brown, were actively engaged leaders in the fight against Proposition 8. Often at odds with members of local chapters, state, and national organization leadership, calls for their removal as respective state and local NAACP leaders mounted.
Their unwavering advocacy for same sex marriage as a civil right was often met with resistance by African American church leaders and congregants across the state who sought to adhere to long held, invested interpretations of religious doctrine prescribing marital arrangements as solely between a man and woman as cause to negate or deny the civil (secular) rights of same sex couples to marry. The intersection between the NAACP and the Black church is a crucial alliance, as some African American churches have historically served as local affiliate chapters of the NAACP, whereby churchgoers are often simultaneously NAACP members.
Standing firm on the NAACPâs legacy of advancing equality and protection under the law for all, staying on message that marriage equality is in fact a civil right extended by constitutional law, their leadership along with other key organizational leaders, such as civil rights icon and NAACP Emeritus Board Chair Julian Bond, steadfastly forged the path towards eventual passage of a resolution supporting marriage equality.
With the recent appointment of Benjamin Jealous as President of the NAACP -- a San Francisco native, with close ties to the LGBT community -- NAACP allies moved evermore aggressively towards an affirmative, national resolution.
Acknowledging same sex marriage equality as âone of the key civil rights struggles of our time,â and the legacy and responsibility of the NAACP to speak up on the civil rights issues of our times, Jealous urges that âwhat has changed is that this is the first time that we have made a full statement on marriage equality that goes beyond the circumstances of any one proposed law or any one state. We feel it is important that everyone understand our commitment to equality under the Constitution and to marriage equality specifically.â
Citing the NAACPâs fight for marriage equality dating at least as far back as the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967, Jealous also notes that in the year before she died, Mildred Loving, who successfully sued to end legally sanctioned marriage inequality based on race, wrote a powerful piece which ended with the statement:
âI am proud that Richardâs 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. Thatâs what Loving, and loving, are all about.â
Give them half a minute, and any long time social justice advocate will recount stories of seemingly small, but unforgettable, moments in their personal narratives about the importance of keeping faith in the quest for justice.
One such moment for me occurred while in a planning retreat with the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition on Saturday, May 19, 2012, when I received a phone call from Reverend Amos Brown. âSister Shorter, Iâm calling to let you know that the national board of the NAACP just passed a resolution in support of same sex marriage. So, please let the community know. We are about justice and equality for all.â
It was apparent that the Reverend made the call within a minute, if not seconds, of the resolutionâs passage. He nearly spoke at a whisper, but the thrill in his voice was undeniable, and the message loud and clear: as its legacy and future relevancy demands, the NAACP simply did the right thing.
Moving forward, yes, the NAACPâs endorsement could give President Obama additional moral and practical support during his bid for re-election.
Regarding the specific impact on the Black churchgoer support for President Obama, Reverend Roland Stringfellow, Director the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations of the Bay Area, observes that âthere are various Black churches who will remain steeped in tradition of being opposed to LGBT inclusion in our society and will not shift on this issue despite the growing support in our country. However, I do not believe it will have a strong impact on the election in November of African-American support for President Obama. Considering the alternate Republican candidate who would have very little benefit to African-American interests, I still see a strong support for our President from the Black church. It is my hope that these endorsements for marriage equality will prompt many Black churches to begin the dialogue about becoming welcoming congregations to LGBT individuals and their families.â
Yes, the NAACP might also experience some turbulence in membership, should disgruntled members choose to leave, But, it can also enjoy a new generation of members from a diversity of backgrounds. Hint: you donât have to be African American to join and support the NAACP, no more than you must be LGBT to support the Human Rights Campaign or the other like organizations.
Yes, the nationâs most storied, historically renowned civil rights organizationâs endorsement of same sex marriage equality can go a long way towards dispelling the misguided notion that African Americans are uniformly opposed to marriage equality. While the work must continue to build understanding of the importance of LGBT civil rights among populations of African Americans -- just as there is among several other racial, faith, age, and geographical demographics -- letâs hope that the divisive notion that African Americans are somehow more homophobic than any other racial population is nearing a resting place.
Finally, and perhaps above all, the NAACP stood firmly for a fundamental cause in the fight for same sex marriage equality: the protection of the separation of church and state as set forth in the Constitution.
The NAACP recognizes that we live in a democracy, not a theocracy. The President is sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States. He or she is not sworn in to uphold the interpreted commandments of the Bible, or other articles of a theocracy.
Reaffirming and clarifying in no uncertain terms that same sex marriage is a civil right, a matter of civil law -- while respecting the various, often complex, contentious religious views on marriage even amongst itâs own membership -- is a much welcome, reasoned resolution from the NAACP.
It was simply the right thing to do. And, it is never to late to do the right thing.
Andrea Shorter is a long time advocate for LGBT rights, past director of Marriage Equality and Coalitions at EQCA, and the And Marriage For All, a public education campaign for African American communities regarding the importance of same sex marriage equality as a civil right.