Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacyhttp://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy
Civil Rights and Social Justice Today
Same-Sex Marriage and The African American Community
Introduction - John Lewis interview
Congressman John Lewis grew up in Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. His experience growing up in the deep South led to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement where he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963-1966. In 1987, John Lewis became a Democratic congressman representing Georgia. As a politician he has continued to fight for civil rights causes. The excerpt below is taken from a transcript of a 2009 interview by Terry Gross for the National Public Radio (NPR) program Fresh Air.
Visit www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99560979 for the audio recording of this interview. The excerpts in the transcript correspond with the following times in the audio: 1:19-3:43 and 22:02-25:06.
"Congressman, Civil Rights Icon John Lewis" Excerpts from Fresh Air Interview
Rep. JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): When I was growing up in rural Alabama, it was impossible for me to register to vote. I didn’t become a registered voter until I moved to Tennessee, to Nashville as a student.
GROSS: Why was it impossible?
Rep. LEWIS: Black men and women were not allowed to register to vote. My own mother, my own father, my grandfather and my uncles and aunts could not register to vote because each time they attempted to register to vote, they were told they could not pass the literacy test. And many people were so intimidated, so afraid that they will lose their jobs, they will be evicted from the farms, and they just – they almost gave up.
GROSS: Your parents were sharecroppers. Now…
Rep. LEWIS: My mother and father and many of my relatives had been sharecroppers. They had been tenant farmers like so many people in the South. They knew the stories that had occurred. They knew places in Alabama where people were evicted from their farm, from the plantation. They read about, they heard about incidents in Tennessee where people were evicted from the farms and plantations back in 1956, in 1957 in West Tennessee between Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee.
GROSS: Now because of that did you – did your parents tell you not to bother to try to vote because it would be dangerous, they might lose their farm? I mean, you were – you were educated, you could certainly pass the literacy test.
Rep. LEWIS: My parents told me in the very beginning as a young child when I raised the question about segregation and racial discrimination, they told me not to get in the way, not to get in trouble, not to make any noise. But we had people that were educated. We had teachers, we had high school principals, we had people teaching in colleges and university in Tuskegee, Alabama. But they were told they failed the so-called literacy test…
GROSS: I want to quote something that you wrote in an op-ed piece in October 2003. And this was about gay rights and the right for gay people to marry. You wrote: I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred and intolerance I have known in racism and bigotry.
Now, I’ve heard some African American leaders say that it’s wrong to make – I’m not quoting you here. I’m saying this part myself. Your quote has ended. And I’m saying, I’ve heard some African American leaders say that it’s wrong to make any connection between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement because discrimination against African Americans and discrimination against gays are completely – completely different things, and being gay and being black are completely different things. What’s your take on that?
Rep. LEWIS: Well, I do not buy that argument. I do not buy that argument. And today, I think more than ever before, we have to speak up and speak out to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Dr. King used to say when people talked about blacks and whites falling in love and getting married – you know, at one time, in the state of Virginia, in my native state of Alabama, in Georgia and other parts of the South blacks and whites could not fall in love and get married. And Dr. King took a simple argument and said, races don’t fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.
It’s not the business of the federal government. It’s not the business of the state government to tell two individuals that they cannot fall in love and get married. And so I go back to what I said and wrote those lines a few years ago, that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and fight and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
And you hear people defending marriage. Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage. It is time for us to put that argument behind us. You cannot separate the issue of civil rights. It one of those absolute, immutable principle – we got to have not just civil rights for some but civil rights for all of us.
GROSS: When you say not just civil rights for some, you even mean not just civil rights for African American but for gay people too?
Rep. LEWIS: Not just civil rights for African American, other minorities, but civil rights also for gay people.
Discussion Questions - John Lewis interview
- What was John Lewis' experience with discrimination when he was growing up?
- How do you think these experiences influenced him?
- What is John Lewis' view on Gay/Lesbian marriage? How does he connect his views to the Civil Rights Movement?
- What does Congressman Lewis think the African American community should do in terms of discrimination based on sexual orientation?
Introduction - "Racial Pawns in the Battle for Same-Sex Marriage"
Taylor Harris is an African American graduate student studying at Johns Hopkins University. In November 2008, she contributed the following article to The Washington Post.
Racial Pawns in the Battle for Same-Sex Marriage
Their refrain was as familiar to me as dining hall food, and equally as offensive. All too often, white liberal classmates at the University of Virginia would ask, “Shouldn’t blacks, more than any other group, support gay rights?”
I never understood my classmates’ need to align the historical struggles of blacks with those of homosexuals and then push their quadratic equation of oppression on me. Was not one point of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” a classic text for college seminars, that blacks deserve an existence free from an assigned role? That they should not be pawns of any social movement? And even if they hadn’t read the book, wasn’t it clear that stereotypical assumptions based on race are regressive?
Hearing that from my white peers was one thing – they and I often viewed race through different lenses, with mine being one shade darker than rose. But last month, one of our greatest civil rights leaders also sang the same cacophonous tune in an attempt to peg African Americans’ morals and opinions to our socio-historical identities.
“Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality,” Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, declared at the National Equality March in Washington.
To be clear, Bond had used this line several times, and when he says “equality,” he isn’t talking about the right to vote, the right to eat at a public restaurant, the right to attend an integrated school or the right to a fair trial. He is talking about the right to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.
With all due respect, which Bond certainly deserves, this black person doesn’t agree. And neither do two-thirds of black Protestants, according to an Oct. 9 Pew Research Center poll. Echoing President Lyndon Johnson’s words at the signing of the Voting Rights Act, Bond said, gay marriage “must come; it is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders.”
He is right about that last point. If gay marriage is legalized, as it will be in the District this year barring congressional interference, blacks who have a moral aversion to same-sex marriage will not longer be tethered to expectations that don’t bind any other racial or ethnic group.
Perhaps Bond fails to realize that he is unfairly requiring another form of “two-ness” among African Americans. Already, being both an American and black is difficult, as W.E.B. DuBois wrote. But so is being an African American and a Christian. Asking those 66 percent of black Protestants to look at religion through the veil of race is not the place even of Martin Luther King Jr.’s comrade.
Plus, the “black guilt” tactic doesn’t work. If gay marriage were put to a popular vote in the District (where 55 percent of residents are African American) and failed, blacks would again take the brunt of criticism from gay activists. Yet no one is talking about blacks’ “understanding” since same-sex marriage was voted down this month in Maine, because no one is even sure whether black people live there.
Maine is the 31st state in which a majority of voters have chosen to uphold the traditional definition of marriage. There aren’t enough black people in America to hold responsible for all of those outcomes – we’re only 12.8 percent of the population.
The refrain will eventually have to change to pinpoint white evangelicals, 77 percent of whom oppose same-sex marriage. And here is the crux of the problem, the point at which we can’t deny the separate and unequal treatment of blacks: What race-based fire can activists put under white Americans who refuse a new definition of marriage? None.
At best, the message to black Americans in one of skewed motivation: You were once treated as second-class citizens. You should feel flattered by the two movements’ similarities and compelled to join our fight. At worse, the message is insulting. In a recent column on same-sex marriage and those who would play the race card, the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby summed up the linkage as “For if opposing the same-sex marriage is like opposing civil rights, then voters who backed Proposition 8 are not better than racists, the moral equivalent of those who turned the fire hoses on blacks in Birmingham in 1963.”
Discussion Questions - "Racial Pawns in the Battle for Same-Sex Marriage"
- Who wrote this article? When was it written?
- For what audience do you think this article was meant? How might this have influenced the content?
- According to the article, many white liberal students have asked the question, "Shouldn't blacks, more than any other group, support gay rights?" What do you think is the basis for this question?
- Do you think Harris considers same-sex marriage to be a civil rights issue? What issues do you think Harris would consider to be civil rights issues?
- Why doesn't Harris think blacks need to necessarily support gay rights? What arguments does she make in her article?
- In Harris' article, she writes that being both African American and a Christian can at times be difficult, and suggests that her beliefs as a Christian are part of what leads her to oppose same-sex marriage. She continues, "Asking those 66 percent of black Protestants [who oppose same-sex marriage] to look at religion through the veil of race is not the place even of Martin Luther King Jr.'s comrade [NAACP chairman Julian Bond]." What is your take on her comments? What parallels do you see between this issue and other issues related to identity and action? How difficult is it, in your experience, to separate different parts of our identities? Do you agree with Harris that it is sometimes necessary to do so? (Think back to other Living the Legacy lesson plans you may have studied.)
- How are the Lewis interview and the Harris article similar and/or different? How does each use the Civil Rights Movement in his arguments?
- To what extent do you think same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue? What kind of criteria would you use to determine if this issue or others are really civil rights issues?
- Based on what you've learned by studying Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, and on the material presented in these documents, do you think a group's experience with persecution/oppression in the past should make us expect more from them in support of another group's fight for justice in the present/future? If possible, support your argument using material from this class and/or other classes.
"Not Only for Ourselves": What are the Goals of Service Projects?
"Not Only for Ourselves," Editorial, The Forward
The story was heart-warming, but instructive in an unexpected way. Jewish families gathered on a Sunday in a warehouse to pack boxes of pasta, canned vegetables and other food supplies and deliver them to needy residents in their region. Parents brought their children to reinforce the message of helping others. A brief dvar Torah was offered, to reinforce another message, that this was not just charity, it was tzedekah, a Jewish expression of communal commitment.
One problem: Deep into the story, as it was written in a community newspaper, we learned that when a certain family tried to deliver their boxes to residents of a federation-owned housing project, almost no one was at home to receive them.
The fact that the mission was not accomplished, that the needy were not served, was an afterthought in this classic presentation of a Jewish service activity.
Obviously, it is difficult to criticize these well-intentioned behaviors. All of us who have ever dragged our children to food warehouses and soup kitchens, park clean-ups and nursing home visits, try to model a kind of citizenship that is essential to maintaining American civic life. More and more, service activities are also regarded as a powerful tool to shore up Jewish identity and values, especially for a generation accustomed to bar mitzvah projects, high school service programs and the kavod they receive for trying to do good in the world.
But elevating Jewish identity to a goal of such efforts undermines their very purpose. “Service programs that exist and are being created will be successful if, first and foremost, they are about service to others and not about strengthening ourselves,” said Ruth Messinger, who as president of American Jewish World Service is considered a doyenne of well-run service programs. She said this in a recent talk at the opening of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, and her important remarks deserve a greater audience.
“Service to others,” she reminded, “is built into Jewish tradition, but it has always been focused on the needs of the beneficiaries, not the volunteers.”
The misguided tendency to conflate the two aims is not only a problem in the Jewish world. For years, the broader national service community has sought to balance the welcome desire of Americans to serve with the most efficient, thoughtful and respectful way of channeling those energies so that they are not wasted, or worse. Because it must be acknowledged that service, if done poorly, can result in more harm than good. It can denigrate or ignore the real needs of the served, and leave the server demoralized and cynical. This is already happening in places where “service learning” is organized cheaply and haphazardly, leaving students to conclude they are wasting their time while polishing their resumes.
Messinger’s remonstrations contained a second, equally important point, that acts of service must be linked to learning about and working to change the conditions that brought about the need in the first place. She calls it social justice. Others may call it active citizenship. Whatever the nomenclature, the point is direct: It’s not enough to serve food in the soup kitchen. We must confront the root causes of hunger and work toward addressing the greater need.
This is not a partisan observation. The volunteer in a deprived public school may be of great help in the classroom, but just as importantly, she is likely witnessing, first-hand, the breakdown in public education in America. Her solution may be to advocate for more government funding, or it may be to push for school vouchers. The essential act here is understanding that even though individual children are aided by her volunteer efforts, the system will not improve unless the underlying conditions are addressed by government and society.
“Service has to be about making change in communities, not about making changes in me,” noted David Rosenn, executive director of Avodah, another well-regarded service program. “The last thing we want the Jewish community to do is use communities in distress as a vehicle to build identity.”
CLARIFICATION: Last week’s editorial, “Not Only for Ourselves,” left the wrong impression about an agency that delivers food supplies to hungry and needy people in its region. Although, as reported, many families were not home to receive the food contributions on a certain day, the agency ensures that the provisions are, in fact, delivered shortly afterward. The Forward apologizes.