BALTIMORE – The leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People stressed on Monday that his organization’s support of marriage for gays and lesbians is consistent with its broader mission to fight discrimination.
“We make this statement today because it is the legacy and responsibility of the NAACP to speak up on the civil rights issue of our times,” said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous during a press conference at the organization’s national headquarters. “We are both proud of our history and challenged by it—challenged to never allow threats to equality for all people under the law to go uncontested.”
Jealous’ comments came two days after the NAACP Board of Directors endorsed extending marriage rights to same-sex couples during their quarterly meeting in Miami. Jealous became emotional as he discussed his parents who had to get married in the District of Columbia in 1966 because Maryland did not allow interracial marriage—the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this ban in Loving v. Virginia the following year. He noted that Mildred Loving herself spoke out in support of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples before she passed away.
“We want to be on the record that the NAACP now firmly opposes all efforts to restrict marriage equality,” said Jealous. “We will oppose threats to the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal rights under the law in any state where this issue is raised.
Jealous dismissed reports that several board members voted against the marriage resolution. Roslyn Brock, chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors, said members had an “open, honest and candid conversation” about the issue during executive sessions.
“The conversation was dispassionate, it was respectful and it embraced and respected the views of all the members who sat around the table,” she said. “This is not a religious issue or a moral issue for the NAACP. That is not the role of the NAACP. On the constitutionality of the issue, the NAACP’s National Board of Directors voted overwhelmingly to support this issue.”
In spite of this support, Brock conceded that there are board members and other NAACP members whose positions on marriage continue to evolve.
“This conversation is one, as President Jealous has stated, is taking place or has taken place across the nation,” she said. “We will work together with our units and with our board to have the courageous conversations that are necessary around this issue.”
The NAACP’s endorsement of marriage rights to same-sex couples comes less than two weeks after North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Doctor William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, was among those who spoke out against the ballot measure before it passed by a 61-39 percent margin.
President Barack Obama on May 9 publicly backed the issue for the first time during a White House interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts.
“For the black community, the president of the United States is as close to Martin Luther King in terms of moral leadership,” said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, in response to a question about whether Obama’s support of marriage rights for same-sex couples prompted the NAACP’s position. “It’s not just amazing that we have a black president but that he exemplifies exceptional leadership. From a space of cultural connection more than anything else, the president stood up beyond popularity, beyond the norm, beyond status quo and took the courageous step on behalf of the LGBT community that many would have seen as a political risk. I see it as nothing less than courageous leadership.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in March signed a bill that will allow same-sex couples to marry, but state voters will likely face a November ballot referendum that would overturn the law that is slated to take effect on Jan. 1.
Fifty-two percent of respondents who participated in a Marylanders for Marriage Equality poll in March said they would vote for the same-sex marriage bill in the likely ballot measure.
Jealous stressed during the press conference that civil rights organizations remain united against the Maryland referendum and other similar measures across the country.
“Ballot measures like that on the ballot here in Maryland are intended to encode discrimination, codify discrimination into law and therefore stand apart from our nation’s recent decades and decades and decades and decades of using its constitution… to expand rights to people,” he said. “This is a cynical attempt to use a state constitution to restrict rights and we will oppose it as we have said in our statement.”
Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference NAACP, told the Blade after the press conference that his affiliate has not “had much discussion” yet on the likely referendum. He suggested, however, that the civil rights organization’s endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples will help black voters better understand ballot measure and its potential impact on LGBT Marylanders.
“We’re hoping that Maryland will understand that any person has a right to be protected under the law,” said Stansbury. “This is basically where we’re coming from. We’re supporting the national office and the national NAACP and taking the position that they have this weekend.”
Maryland Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) also welcomed the NAACP’s position.
“As a life long member, I am encouraged by this historic decision of national NAACP to transform their position which opposed efforts to ban civil recognition of same-sex unions to one which honors and is inclusive of our black LGBT community by supporting the struggle for full marriage equality for same gender loving couples,” she told the Blade. “For those African American people who were on the fence about the issue, the support of the NAACP and our president will help move the conversation forward.
Washington categorized the endorsement as an “important step” that bolsters the efforts of those fighting against the likely referendum. Lettman-Hicks stressed that the NAACP could play a crucial role in organizing opposition to the ballot measure much like it did in North Carolina.
“The same energy that we saw in North Carolina would be monumental to the state of Maryland,” she said. “I hope that the leadership the NAACP showed on the national level will manifest at the same magnitude in Maryland especially since they’re headquartered there.”
Washington conceded these efforts would not have much of an impact among white protestants and Roman Catholics who oppose marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“Our work in those communities should continue more vigorously now than ever before,” she said.