Thursday, May 10, 2012

Andrew Sullivan on North Carolina's 1875 Constitutional Amendment: Historical Lessons Not to Forget

And speaking of the long, hard struggle that has attended every human rights breakthrough in American culture; and speaking of the price that had to be paid by many people of conscience for many years to obtain equal rights for African-American citizens of the U.S., as principles-lite liberals sat on the fence and pontificated from their perches of "objective," "centrist," uncommitted superiority:

Andrew Sullivan issued a salient reminder yesterday of the last time North Carolina amended its state constitution re: the issue of marriage.  The year: 1875.  The issue: interracial marriage.

Which Southern Christian folks continued to believe, right up to 1967 when Loving v. Virginia finally struck down marriage laws prohibiting miscegenation, was prohibited by divine law.  Since God established the institution of marriage, as God established the institution of the races, and both biblical warrant and natural law prove that God intended the races to marry only among themselves.

As Virginia judge Leon Bazile stated in 1959 when he sentenced Mildred Loving and Richard Perry to prison for violating Virginia's Racial Integrity Act, 

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

A statement one cannot avoid remembering as one hears what National Organization for Marriage head Brian Brown said yesterday in immediate response to the president's announcement:

God is the author of marriage, and we will not let an activist politician like Barack Obama who is beholden to gay marriage activists for campaign financing to turn marriage into something political that can be redefined according to presidential whim.

Same claims, different historical circumstances: we who resist [miscegenation, same-sex marriage, fill in the blank] speak on behalf of God.  You whom we define as dirt that must be expelled from the community of the godly have no knowledge of God's intent and can have no knowledge of God's intent.  Since dirt can't speak and can't know God.    

What remains constant in these different historical moments is, however, the imperative need to struggle to attain human rights and to safeguard rights once tiny breakthroughs for human rights have occurred.  Because human rights are never automatically accorded in American culture.  Because powerful forces within the culture persistently claim to speak on behalf of God as they fight tooth and nail against each human rights breakthrough that comes along, and they characteristically muster churches and religious groups and create a crusade against the rights of minority groups, claiming religious warrant for their attacks on minority groups.

There's a historical lineage that people concerned about the ongoing struggle for human rights for gay citizens of the U.S. need to be aware of as they read the 1875 amended North Carolina state constitution Andrew Sullivan presented at his website yesterday.  From the end of the Civil War up to the middle of the 1870s, freed slaves experienced a unique window of opportunity in the former slave states to assert their humanity and to enjoy human rights of which they could only dream prior to the war.

They began to hold property.  They started to vote.  They served in state legislatures.  They were permitted to contract legal civil marriages that were registered in state and county records and entitled to rights accorded to other marriages.

And then, with the end of Reconstruction, that window was slammed shut again--and it was slammed shut exceptionally hard--by white Southerners.  With the implicit, tacit consent of Northern "liberals" who stood by in silence, doing nothing, as a nightmare scenario was crafted by Southern legislatures for people of color.

State by state, the constitutions of Southern states were amended to shut black citizens once again out of the right to vote.  State by state, the legislatures were taken over by deeply corrupt one-party systems that created laws and employed dirty tricks making it impossible for black citizens to approach the polls again for nigh onto a century.  African Americans were reduced to quasi-servitude in Southern states by draconian Jim Crow laws from the mid-1870s through the 1890s.  Lynching--acts of brutal terroristic violence--was routinely employed by Southern whites to assure that people of color not dare to think of rebelling in any way at all against the laws that placed them back into a condition of virtual slavery following their brief window of opportunity after the Civil War.

And to repeat: all this happened as the Northern states stood by, doing nothing, claiming that states' rights do not permit the states in one part of the nation to interfere in the business of states in another section--even when fundamental Constitutional principles of human rights are at stake.  And as many Northern liberals and the Northern press turned a blind eye to the brutality and violence used to cow, discipline, and silence black citizens of the Southern states.

Read North Carolina's amended 1875 constitution, think about the chain of historic events it signaled, and apply that historical analogy to the vote that has just taken place in North Carolina, and the historical lesson that leaps out at me, as someone whose roots lie in the very thick of this bloody history (and in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s) is as follows: read against the backdrop of North Carolina's vote several days ago, the president's human rights announcement yesterday must be seen as an exceptionally fragile if symbolically important breakthrough for human rights.

It is entirely possible for this breakthrough to be reversed now by regressive forces that retain very strong power in American culture.  And it is entirely possible for those forces, if they gain power in legislative bodies, courts, and at the federal executive level, to enact laws that will place gay citizens of the U.S. back into nightmare situations many of us would like to imagine we've now lived beyond.

The only thing that can prevent such historical possibilities from emerging in our culture in the near future is concerted action and hard work based on unvarying human rights principles.  By many citizens of different religious, class, social, and regional backgrounds collaborating to protect and promote human rights.

Because they care about human rights--for themselves and others.  And because they recognize that in the American context, human rights come always with a price tag attached and are never automatically accorded.  And that the forces in American culture determined to resist human rights have long been and remain exceedingly strong.

And are strongly grounded, to the woe of many people of faith who have learned our lessons about human rights within our faith communities, right in our communities of faith.  Who cannot be given a pass when they continue to collaborate with the 1% to deny rights to groups of American citizens--if we want the American democratic experiment to continue.

P.S. It goes without saying that I am not comparing the specific kinds of oppression gay citizens in the U.S. have experienced with the kind of oppression dished out to African American, whose experience of bondage was singularly cruel.  At the same time, I don't want to overlook or diminish the specific kinds of suffering inflicted on gay citizens of the nation, either--who were subject to capital punishment for being gay at some points in American history, who have been subjected to cruel and inhumane "therapies" at other points in American history, who, even today, lack any legal protection from overt discrimination in the workplace or in housing in half the states in the union, and who have often been and continue to be, in some cultures, beaten and abused as children and expelled from their families when they claim their sexual orientation.

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