I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, when the subject of equality and inter-racial marriage caused passionate and hateful reactions from those who preferred the status quo of “traditional” marriage and segregation.
I can still remember all the hoopla surrounding the fervor of the debate.
“It’s unnatural,” we were told. “It will destroy the institution of marriage as we know it today!”
And most Americans were opposed to this travesty, so it must be true.
The majority rules. Right?
After all, we had been given many “logical” reasons why marriage between the races would undermine the traditional family structure. There were psychological warnings about the differences in cultures. And “those kind of people” were painted in a way to make us afraid of casual association, much less intimate contact. That's why it was illegal.
This prevailing unanimity of the mainstream populace became the banner and battle cry of the elected or the hoped-to-become-elected. Politicians and parties positioned themselves with the opinions of their constituency against this dilution of society’s framework. This perceived “mandate of the majority” was exploited to manufacture a reputation, not to mention raise lots of money. Build on the fear. Stir up the anxiety. Paint the caricatures. Bend the facts. (Names like George Wallace and Bull Conner are etched into our historic consciousness.)
Exclusion was presented as the will of the majority, not injustice to the marginal. “We the people” and “freedom and justice for all” were ignore in favor of the more expedient concept of established opinion. Majority rules!
Tragically, in the name of imposing and protecting conformity, we saw anger, hatred and violence. The words of our politicians and our preachers stirred righteous hostility, moving some to aggression. Police dogs and fire hoses will forever be associated with our forceful response to those who protested injustice, inequality and oppression. I sadly watched the news report the bombing of a local church, where four young girls attending Sunday School will killed in the blast.
Who would slaughter someone just because they were different?
Who would lash out in such violence just to make a point?
I also remember hearing those who made half-assed apologies about the severity of the actions, while subtly (or blatantly) reminding us that the goal should nonetheless be embraced. In other words, the bombers had the “right idea” but employed the wrong methods.
In church—the long-established voice of moral reason for multitudes—we listened to countless sermons on the clear and obvious Scriptures it would violate to permit such marriages. Preachers warned of the dire and divine repercussions if this anathema was tolerated. Waving their black Bibles at their white congregation, these pulpit prophets passionately told us that marriage had to be defended. Segregation was God's design. We were at war to protect our children, our family, our future.
“Onward, Christian Soldiers” was our counter-anthem to “We Shall Overcome.”
To solidify their entrenched position on the issue, many churches voted to codify their opposition; membership in the congregation was re-defined to encompass both a professed faith and proper skin color.
Now to be fair, there was also a positive side. Throughout the diatribes, if we listened very, very carefully, these apostolic messengers would also quietly remind us of our Lord’s command to love, even in our ferocious opposition to justice, equality and acceptance. It was something akin to: “Love them as people, but hate their misguided plan to invade our culture.”
Of course, there was the “other side” of the conflict as well. The liberal media gave excessive attention and credibility to these troublemaking renegades. Their "freedom marches" paraded into our living rooms on TV. Out of touch reporters provided a platform where they condemned the injustice of racial discrimination and decried the brutality of white oppression.These radicals spoke of their desire to have their rights recognized and their love validated.
And those who disagreed were labeled with harsh, negative terms. Racist. Bigot. Supremacists.
Naturally we were told not to listen because “they” had an agenda—an ominous, organized plan to undo the fabric of our sacred traditions by imposing their rights over those of the mainstream. We had to continue our divinely ordained mission to oppose their twisted view of fairness and equality. Our rights must be protected, not shared. We were told it was perfectly acceptable (preferable!) to maintain our resistance to the equality of those kind of people and that kind of marriage.
The law was on our side.
History was on our side.
The majority was on our side.
The Bible was on our side.
We would be victorious!
However, into the fray of this battle “activist judges” intervened. They seemed intent on interpreting the Constitution—and ignoring the Bible—with a view toward equality. They ruled against discrimination and segregation, in spite of political pressure and accepted opinion. It didn't seem to matter what the majority might want. They ignored (and supplanted) existing, outdated laws. These jurists decided that race could not restrict the freedom of any citizen. Including the sacred institution of marriage.
How could some Americans be denied the same rights as all Americans?
Not all agreed. Many complained and grumbled.
Some faith communities refused to welcome those of another race, or perform the ceremonies of couples who didn’t share a single race. And because of the prevailing reality of church-state separation , and to the surprise of many, the government did not force them to alter their dogmatic position; they could blissfully continue their inflexible practices of discrimination. In return, their rigid beliefs would not be imposed on the rest of progressing humanity. A civil ceremony of marriage could be performed without the validation and sanction of the church, but still enjoy all the benefits conferred by the laws of the state. It was an equitable balance.
Yes, it was a different time.
We look back now, ashamed of those who spoke out with such strong conviction. We cringe at the intolerance and the willingness to obey without question. We view them today as anachronistic, comparable to cave-dwellers.
Most who hold to a religious faith have publicly repented and sought forgiveness for the archaic behavior of their ecclesiastical parents. We see now that even the inspired Word of God—intended to bring love and unity—can be bent to personal prejudices and institutional presumption. We shudder at the harm (and horror) such unenlightened dogmatism inflicted.
I am so glad we've evolved past all that hateful and ignorant nonsense when it comes to the equality and civil rights of others.
"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
~ Maya Angelou
I’m not seeking to equate the long, historic civil rights struggle of African Americans with that of the GLBT community, and would not claim to fully understand the awfulness of those years of oppression. I am merely pointing out similarities when it comes to the fight for equality and justice.