NAACP Gets to Yes

An ally's announcement is ample reason for celebration

A group calling itself the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hardly sounds cutting edge. Yet 62 of 64 board members for the nation’s oldest civil rights organization voted on May 19 to support civil marriage equality. NAACP’s historic announcement emphasized the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

By coincidence, several black high school students in D.C. last week cited the same constitutional provision in support of marriage equality during their senior thesis presentations, on which I had advised them. One had kept his topic a secret from his staunchly churchgoing parents, only telling them a week before that it was on gay marriage and he was in favor. His teacher said he went home a boy and came back a man. After his presentation, his parents beamed with pride.

A week before the NAACP’s decision, I got a call from Rev. Morris Shearin, pastor at D.C.’s Israel Baptist Church and former president of the NAACP D.C. branch. “Now that you got what you want,” he teased about President Obama’s support for marriage equality, “you have no time for your old friend Morris Shearin.” To the contrary, I was delighted to hear from him.

Pastor Shearin, in his own way, was offering congratulations. How far we have come in the two decades since he refused to accept a $5,000 donation raised for the D.C. NAACP by the black LGBT group DC Coalition. I had attended that fundraiser, and I remember DC Coalition Co-Chair Carlene Cheatam calling me with the sad news.

A few years after that, I got a call from Mark Thompson, political director of the D.C. NAACP, who with Shearin’s blessing was forming a task force to demand greater accountability in cases of alleged police abuse of citizens. I was president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) at the time, and joined representatives from the ACLU, the National Black Police Association and others in the effort.

The NAACP-DC Police Task Force successfully pushed for creation of an independent Office of Police Complaints, but it bore other fruit as well. In July 1997, Thompson wrote to Mayor Marion Barry on NAACP letterhead objecting to a pattern of regulatory harassment of gay-owned and gay-oriented businesses in the District. This got the mayor’s attention and helped bring a resolution. The task force won GLAA’s Distinguished Service Award in 1998.

Collaborations like that one have occurred in many places across the country. The process did not end on May 19. Changing hearts and minds requires respectful engagement over many years. I doubt there will be gay weddings at Israel Baptist anytime soon. Indeed, the NAACP statement quite properly placed religious freedom alongside civil equality for all. But even some who resist changing have the grace to respect fresh perspectives and a new generation of leaders.

The NAACP decision gives a boost to the liberal coalition at a time when the radical right is making ever more blatant appeals to bigotry and fear. For example, after last week’s report that non-white births went over the 50 percent mark in 2011 for the first time in American history, the Eagle Forum decried the news as an attack on the American family, and unleashed an ugly caricature of immigrants. We must respond that America is stronger for celebrating and protecting all of its diverse families.

Many NAACP leaders have supported equality, from former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond to current NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, who have worked with LGBT advocates like the National Black Justice Coalition. Prejudice dies hard, but equality has eloquent ministerial allies from Otis Moss III in Chicago to Delman Coates in Clinton, Md. We deserve this moment of joy. Let it energize us for the battles ahead.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.