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An organ played ”God Bless America” as Mitt Romney took the stage at the NAACP’s annual convention in Houston July 11. The audience stood to welcome him, but for most of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s speech, the reception was chilly, and perhaps not surprisingly so.
After all, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organizations, includes some of President Barack Obama’s strongest supporters. Romney had his work cut out for him trying to convince the organization that he — and not America’s first black president — would be better for the African-American community.
Nevertheless, Romney gave it his best shot and struck an inclusive tone early in his speech, telling the audience that he hopes ”to represent all Americans of every race, creed and sexual orientation.”
Romney’s mention of sexual orientation was surprising. This speech, which was televised on most major cable news channels, was perhaps the highest profile speech so far in the campaign that Romney has brought up LGBT issues. For the gay community, Romney’s specific mention of sexual orientation seemed like an olive branch at first, but that was quickly overshadowed by what followed.
”As president I will promote strong families and I will defend traditional marriage,” Romney said. Despite the NAACP officially endorsing marriage equality two months ago, Romney’s vow to defend traditional marriage was greeted with cheers from some audience members.
Romney’s position on marriage equality is nothing new. Since running for president, he has taken a hardline stance on the right of same-sex couples to marry, voicing opposition not only to same-sex marriage but to civil unions that provide many of the same state-level rights as marriage.
Although Romney was booed at three points during his speech, including when he vowed to dismantle ”Obamacare,” the reaction from the audience to his words on marriage shed light on some degree of division within the NAACP after the organization’s official decision to join Obama in his support for marriage equality.
Some of those cheering Romney’s line about marriage were members of a group of black pastors who traveled to the convention to protest the organization’s stance on marriage equality. Led by Rev. William Owens, who also works for the National Organization of Marriage, the Coalition of African-American Pastors has accused the NAACP of forgetting the principles the group was founded on 103 years ago.
Owens claims his coalition has more than 1,300 pastors and has been vocal in his opposition to marriage equality, having garnered headlines for comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality in the past.
“This is supposed to be an organization for black people who were beaten, who were mistreated and who were enslaved,” Owens said of the NAACP in an interview with The Huffington Post.