Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Struggle for Black Rights and Gay Rights: Historical Parallels

I am reading these days Grif Stockley’s outstanding comprehensive history of race relations in Arkansas, Ruled by Race (Fayetteville: Univ. of AR Press, 2009). And as I do so, passage after passage tugs at me as a reminder of how far we have yet to go in many respects in our society, to realize the ideals implanted by our founders in our participatory democracy.

Stockley’s book reminds me, too, of why I frame some of the issues I think about now in terms that have become second-nature to me. I wrote yesterday, for instance,

Moral imperatives just don't come and go, as it becomes expedient to attend to them (or, more to the point, to ignore them). For many of us, they remain powerfully important even after election promises have been made and election cycles are over.

And the following passage (p. 326) in Stockley’s book reminds me of why I have no choice except to think that way, as I look at how the new administration is choosing to do business:

The death of John F. Kennedy was a grievous blow to many blacks in Arkansas. . . . And yet it was dyed-in-the-wool Southerner Lyndon Baines Johnson who used every bit of his political skill as president to pass and implement into law the hopes that blacks had for change. Time and again Johnson emphasized morality as a basis for action. It was the issue of right and wrong that, as president, Johnson hammered home. In signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, Johnson said to America,

“The reasons for racial discrimination . . . are deeply embedded in history, tradition, and the nature of man. . . . But it cannot continue. The Constitution, the principles of freedom and morality all forbid such unequal treatment.”

Where President Johnson was going as a Southerner, few, and none in politics, had gone before. Not only did Johnson characterize race as a moral issue, but he was also willing to confront the demons that all but a few white Southerners had avoided.

And of course, as I read this passage, I ask myself why a recognition so painfully achieved by some Americans in the years in which I came of age seems impossible to achieve today, when it comes to gay rights. Here is a man whose personal history was deeply imbued with prejudice, recognizing that we cannot morally and constitutionally continue upholding racial discrimination no matter how deeply encoded that discrimination is in our history, tradition, and perhaps even our nature.

Why is it so difficult for many of us today to see the parallels between the gay struggle for full personhood and that of people of color?

And seeing, to act, since, as Stockley emphasizes, what makes Johnson’s story heroic is that he chose to act, once he recognize the moral imperative for ending racial discrimination.