October 26, 2004

Civil Rights Speeches from America's Past Illuminate the Present

As part of my ongoing political debate with D, I researched quotes to support my hypothesis that the language historically used to justify slavery, racism and sexism is still being used to justify denying equal rights to gays, lesbians, intersex and transgendered people.

To address our differences of opinion regarding the rights and liberties we believe are afforded all Americans by our Constitution, I will turn to a 19th-Century orator, who spoke in 1871 on the topic of Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Rights.

Virginia Woodhull:

I trust you will pardon me the statement when I say that I do not comprehend how there can exist an honest and perfect appreciation of the fundamental propositions upon which the superstructure of our government is based, and, at the same time, an honest hostility to the legitimate deductions of them, therefore I appear before you to expound as best I may the law involved by these propositions and to point out the inconsistencies of those who evince hostility to such deductions.

Here is Julia's definition of marriage: The state of two persons being united in a legal, consensual, and contractual relationship recognized and sanctioned by and dissolvable only by law.

Mrs. Ernestine I. Rose, 1860:

But what is marriage? A human institution, called out by the needs of social, affectional human nature, for human purposes, its objects are, first, the happiness of the parties immediately concerned, and, secondly, the welfare of society.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, arguing for the right to divorce, 1860: http://abacus.bates.edu/~skelley/cl04C15Conven1860.htm

If marriage is a human institution, about which man may legislate, it seems but just that he should treat this branch of his legislation with the same common sense that he applies to all others. If it is a mere legal contract, then should it be subject to the restraints and privileges of all other contracts.

Where two beings are drawn together, by the natural laws of likeness and affinity, union and happiness are the result. Such marriages might be Divine. But how is it now? You all know our marriage is, in many cases, a mere outward tie, impelled by custom, policy, interest, necessity; founded, not even in friendship, to say nothing of love; with every possible inequality of condition and development.

…Now, do you believe, men and women, that all these wretched matches are made in heaven? that all these sad, miserable people are bound together by God? I know Horace Greeley has been most eloquent, for weeks past, on the holy sacrament of ill-assorted marriages; but let us hope that all wisdom does not live, and will not die, with Horace Greeley. I think, if he had been married to the New York Herald, instead of the Republican party, he would have found out some Scriptural arguments against life‑long unions, where great incompatibility of temper existed between the parties. (Laughter and applause.)

Stanton continues with an exact articulation of what I have always said about laws outlawing abortion and restricting the reproductive rights of women:

It is folly to make laws on subjects beyond human prerogative, knowing that in the very nature of things they must be set aside. To make laws that man cannot and will not obey, serves to bring all law into contempt.
Here is a sentence that could be applied to the concept of marriage rights for all:

Why is it that all agreements, covenants, partnerships, are left wholly at the discretion of the parties, except the contract which of all others is considered most holy and important, both for the individual and the race?
At the end of the 1860 National Women’s Rights Convention, William Lloyd Garrison’s words were summarized as follows:

The rights of woman are coëqual and coëternal with the rights of man, being based upon human nature; and, therefore, are not to be determined nor circumscribed by an appeal to any book in the world, however excellent that book may be. It was [Mr. Garrison's] conviction that, until the true origin of all rights was perceived and acknowledged, very slow progress would be made towards their obtainment. No matter what any book might say to the contrary, human rights were equal, inalienable, indestructible, without reference to sex or complexion. They belonged to the constitution of every human being. It seemed to him, in a government like this, that they had nothing more to do than to put the ballot into the hand of woman, as it was in the hand of man. If, after she had a fair share of political power and representation, any of her rights were cloven down, then the fault would be her own. Let her say what shall be the laws, in coöperation with man, and the work would be done. He trusted the day was not far distant when woman would fully enjoy the benefit of the democratic theory of government. That theory we must carry out, or go backward to despotism, repudiating the revolutionary struggle, and spitting upon Bunker Hill and Lexington. We must give to all the same rights under a free government; and then we should be a consistent and glorious republic.

D., you insist that extending marriage rights to all human beings would be “destroying” marriage, or “tearing marriage down and rebuilding it from the ground up.” Was Major League Baseball “destroyed” when Jackie Robinson was allowed to play? Or what about when women were allowed to play basketball – did it have to be torn down and completely rebuilt?

Here is Carrie Chapman Catt in 1916 on the anti-suffragists’ arguments, which are, not coincidentally, the same ones used to keep gays from enjoying equal rights:

The male and female anti-suffragists of all lands will puff and blow at the economic change which will come to the women of Europe. They will declare it to be contrary to Nature and to God's plan and that somebody ought to do something about it.

There have always been arguments for protecting the status quo; the most indefensible of these, in my opinion, cite the Bible as justification. Wasn’t Jesus a uniter, not a divider? The ultimate uniter, in fact? “The slave shall not rise up against his master” was a Bible verse used to justify the harsh punishment of slaves who escaped or plotted uprisings.

Carrie Catt again on the “Anti-suffrage” movement. This perfectly encapsulates what I believe about all socially progressive movements:

We have not won the reactionaries of any party, church or society, and we never will. From the beginning of things, there have been Antis. The Antis drove Moses out of Egypt; they crucified Christ who said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself"; they have persecuted Jews in all parts of the world; they poisoned Socrates, the great philosopher; they cruelly persecuted Copernicus and Galileo, the first great scientists; they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake because he believed the world was round; they burned Savonarola who warred upon church corruption; they burned Eufame McIlyane [sic] because she used an anaesthetic; they burned Joan d'Arc for a heretic; they have sent great men and women to Siberia to eat their hearts out in isolation; they burned in effigy William Lloyd Garrison; they egged Abbie Kelley and Lucy Stone and mobbed Susan B. Anthony. Yet, in proportion to the enlightenment of their respective ages, these Antis were persons of intelligence and honest purpose. They were merely deaf to the call of Progress and were enraged because the world insisted upon moving on. Antis male and female there still are and will be to the end of time. Give to them a prayer of forgiveness for they know not what they do; and prepare for the forward march.
I found a web page with a bio of a Georgia governor. Here's a quote from it:

Like his contemporaries, Griffin ran for office on a staunch segregationist platform. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregation unconstitutional just before the 1954 gubernatorial campaign. In that campaign Griffin promised to protect segregated schools "come hell or high water." During the Griffin administration no Georgia schools were integrated; the desegregation process did not begin until 1961, two years after he left office.
There’s that word “protect” again -- being used to describe the efforts of racial segregationists.

From a Louisiana man's blog:

…I had thrilled to the music of Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Little Richard, and other "race" musicians whose upbeat rhythm and blues was almost drowned out by the cosmic voice-over of Boss Leander Perez, virtual dictator of Placquemines Parish, Louisiana, who fulminated like Goebbels or Hitler about the imminent dangers of allowing "burrheads" into our schools in 1957. I was then serving as an altar boy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in the suburbs of New Orleans. I vividly remember a hot Sunday morning after Pentecost when the pastor solemnly announced that the parish school would be integrated that coming fall. The good parishioners wept openly at the prospect of this seemingly apocalyptic event.
BBC Four: Jonathan Freedland discusses America 30 years on with Lani Guinier and James Fallows Dec. 19, 2002.

And MLK’s words in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written over 40 years ago, in 1963. It’s interesting what he has to say about the church’s position on civil rights; the words are still true today.

I have hope that [Mayor] Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

… One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

… So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

… So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I see every parallel between the struggles of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and the struggles of gay Americans for equality and respect today. The reason that the judge in Massachusetts ruled as she did this year is that she could see no way to justify “separate but equal” marriage rules. Perhaps, as the religious leaders in Birmingham asserted, the current fight over gay rights is not “well timed,” but it’s been more than 35 years since the Stonewall riots, and there is still an unbelievable amount of hate directed at gays. Hate stems from fear, and fear from ignorance – the same emotions that were at work in opposing women’s suffrage.

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