The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren’t about to let the black community split over the issue of gay marriage. They are stepping forward to rally support for President Obama’s position among black pastors and their congregations.
“We cannot be selective with civil rights,” asserts the Reverend Al Sharpton, in a strong appeal to African Americans. “We must support civil rights for everybody or we don’t support them for anyone.”
To put the issue of gay marriage in perspective, the Reverend Jesse Jackson emphasizes battles that have been previously fought. “If the states had to vote on slavery, we would have lost the vote,” he says. “If we had to vote on the right [for blacks] to vote, we would have lost that vote.” He is urging black pastors to take up the fight from the pulpit, reminding people , “You may choose your mate, but you cannot deny someone else the right to choose their mate.”
The image of the African-American community has been taking a beating over its failure to support civil rights for others—rights it fought hard to win for itself. In 2008, black support for California’s Proposition 8 was heavily blamed for the role it played in revoking the right of same-sex couples to marry. Then, last week, the media speculated freely about the presumed homophobia of black voters in North Carolina and whether they made the difference in passing the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment.
African-American columnist Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times writes that, “Black people belong to the group of Americans that is least likely to get married.” Therefore, “African Americans who voice strong opinions against gay marriage do so at the risk of looking like hypocrites. Under the current state of affairs, how can black ministers argue that gay marriage is immoral or that the president has forsaken his religious teaching?” She urges black evangelicals to quit denouncing gay marriage and expend their efforts on “aggressively promoting marriage to members of their congregations”—as well as trying to imitate the success of the gay community “in pushing its agenda to the top of the president’s to-do list”.
There has been significant concern that the issue of gay marriage would be used to divide members of the African-American community, with the result of diluting their vote in November—or, alternatively, to turn blacks and gays against one another. In internal documents concerning the North Carolina initiative, The National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, identified this objective: “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”
However, two leaders in North Carolina, the Reverend Dr. William Barber and Professor Ferrel Guillory, “do not believe the issue of gay marriage will diminish Obama’s support among Black voters in North Carolina.” Plus, Barber says, the Black churches and NAACP chapters with whom he works do not see gay marriage as an agenda-setting issue. Their priorities are poverty and economic inequality—not the Christian Right’s family values agenda.
Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would agree; they expect unity to prevail. Sharpton’s signed statement, endorsed by other prominent figures, sends a dual message: “As leaders in today’s civil rights movement, we stand behind President Obama’s belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to join in civil marriages. We also affirm that individuals may hold different views on this issue but still work together towards our common goals.”
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