Monthly Archives: January 2013

Reflections on MLK Day

(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a blog post I originally wrote in 2011.)

I doubt that I need to inform anyone what today is. But before I talk about what this day means to me, I want to say something that this day is not. It is not, as some people have suggested, the only national holiday in the United States set aside for an individual. Occasionally, you will see somebody bemoaning how Martin Luther King has his own holiday but not George Washington. Usually, this gripe will include comments about how George Washington was supposedly so much more moral than Martin Luther King. Even if every claim ever made about King’s womanizing is true, I still do not see how we can consider Washington to be his moral superior, given the fact that the man owned, bought, sold, and whipped human beings due to their skin color. Furthermore, Presidents’ Day originated and is officially recognized as George Washington’s birthday. Christopher Columbus also enslaved and otherwise brutalized human beings of a different race yet he has his own federal holiday. Finally, the last time I checked, Christmas is a national holiday, and it is of course set aside to honor Jesus Christ. Now, I would like to look at what qualifies King for a national holiday. We all are probably aware of the horror of Jim Crow. That vile legal system is one of the worst blights on the United States. The way in which some Americans were given freedom and opportunity while others were singled out for persecution was perhaps on some level worse than the sort of even-handed oppression that occurred at the same time in Soviet Russia. That was the greatest piece of adversity that Dr. King had to free the black community from. The other obstacle that King had to remove, however, came from the black community itself. On the one hand were activists like Malcolm X who advocated a sort of racial separatism that would actually help hold blacks down by showing solidarity with policies such as school segregation and interracial marriage bans. On the other hand was the school of thought pioneered by Booker T. Washington, which stated that African Americans should remain passive in the face of oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed African Americans that they could strive to be on equal footing with whites and for the freedom to choose their own schools, neighborhoods, spouses, and places of recreation without the constraint of race. He also showed African Americans that they were stronger than they realized, that they did not have to bow down to abuse, and that they could work together with like-minded whites to achieve their goals. King’s movement was not limited by robotic adherence to the law or by party loyalty. He was aware, when even many blacks and whites fighting for racial equality were not, that it was justified and essential to unlawfully resist the corrupt state governments of the South. While battling Southern Democrats, he formed alliances with Northern Republicans and Democrats. One of the ways in which he prodded John F. Kennedy to action was with the threat that Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s Republican governor and a staunch MLK supporter, might beat Kennedy to the punch and thereby put more black votes in the GOP column. Much more important than his focus on nonviolence was his eschewing of all racial hatred. One of his close confidantes was Stanley Levison, a Jewish New Yorker. King’s life and message is a guidebook for the Gay Rights Movement. Some people claim that gays and lesbians are too demanding and should adopt a more conciliatory approach. They argue that the community should accept a compromise such as civil unions, as opposed to full marriage equality. Like King, gay activists must insist that their rights are not contingent upon the good will of other people. In 2004, when Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Fransisco began engaging in civil disobedience by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, many criticized him for violating state law. Like King, gays and lesbians must applaud civil disobedience in the name of justice. They must not fear to be disruptive, aggressive, and confrontational. And like King, they must not be afraid to form alliances with supportive heterosexuals. In conjunction with this, it is important for the Gay Rights Movement to stand firm in the face of people who accuse them of hijacking the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Gay activists must insist that the shared characteristics of legal oppression based on an immutable trait, along with the myriad of ways in which segregationist tactics mirror gay bashing tactics, make the comparison valid. Of course, there will be some veterans of the Civil Rights Movement—Fred Shuttlesworth, Walter Fauntroy—who claim that the comparison is offensive. This simply forces gays and lesbians to remind everyone that the racism-homophobia comparison has been made by Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, and Julian Bond, all of them veterans of the Civil Rights Movements. Remind everyone that Bayard Rustin, one of King’s closest advisers, was forced to remain in the shadows of the movement because he was gay. Remember that Rustin later delivered a speech stating that gay was the new black. Remember that Mildred Loving, African American pioneer in the Supreme Court case legalizing interracial marriage, stated before her death that the comparison between interracial marriage and gay marriage was valid. And lastly remember the words of Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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A Dead Rattlesnake’s Venom

Before getting to the main point of my blog I wanted to express my condolences for two amazing women. The first is Lillian Miles Lewis, wife of the great Congressman John Lewis, who died on December 31. The second is Jeanne Manford, founder of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, who died on January 8. Both of these individuals left a wonderful mark on the world and will be sorely missed. As for the main post of my post, one of the interesting things about rattlesnakes is that they can be dangerous even when dead. You see, reflexes allow a dead rattlesnake to still inject venom for a limited amount of time. More than one hapless individual has found this out the hard way, accidentally impaling their hand on the fangs of a dead snake and being injected with the venom. I got to thinking about this when I read an article about Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin introducing a clause into the most recent National Defense Authorization Act that reads, “The Armed Forces shall accommodate the conscience and sincerely held moral principles and religious beliefs of the members of the Armed Forces concerning the appropriate and inappropriate expression of human sexuality and may not use such conscience, principles, or beliefs as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.” The clause remained in the NDAA, and President Obama signed the bill while including a lengthy signing statement opposing Akin’s clause. Now, I am a fan of President Obama. The amount that he has done for gay rights surpasses what has been done by every other U.S. president put together. But that does not mean that I will withhold criticism when I believe he waffles. And that is exactly what has happened. I have said it before, and I will say it again: the most fundamental test for a nation is whether or not all citizens have equal rights regardless of immutable traits. As long as a nation denies some citizens equal rights based on immutable traits, that nation can neither be truly great nor truly free. With the NDAA, the United States has failed this test in a major way. The security of our nation cannot be bought at the expense of the civil rights of gays and lesbians. President Obama’s decision to sign the bill even though he opposes a discriminatory clause reminds me of Calvin Coolidge’s handling of the Immigration Act of 1924. In the 1920s, some progressives and populists joined with some fiscal conservatives, such as Coolidge, to advocate immigration restriction. The Immigration Act severely cut down on immigration  in general and singled out people coming in from Japan, basically forbidding any of them from coming to the United States. Here, Coolidge faced a conflict. He was a product of New England’s rich WASP power structure. His racial views, while much more conservative than those of, say, Parker Pillsbury or Moorfield Storey (in other words, Coolidge was a racist) were moderate or even liberal for the era. He favored federal legislation to ban lynching, signed the Indian Citizenship Act, and advocated a national conversation on race relations. He was appalled when it was suggested that America was, a “white man’s country.” In this vein, he was unhappy with the Immigration Act’s special discrimination against the Japanese. In the end, he made the decision to sign the bill while publicly condemning the Japanese immigrant clause. The result was that, in order to pass a bill that was stupid anyway, Coolidge allowed hardworking, moral Japanese people to be discriminated against based on their ethnicity and may well have helped inflame Japanese anger against the U.S. Pearl Harbor, anyone? I commend President Obama for including a signing statement expressing his disagreement with Akin’s clause. And I believe that as the Commander-in-Chief of the military, he will interpret this idiotic clause in such a way as to avoid allowing anti-gay discrimination. However, I want to explain why the clause is so heinous. It is written in a way that is needlessly open-ended. No clause such as this was needed. Homophobic soldiers should be dealt with in the same manner as racist soldiers–they may have whatever private beliefs they wish, but they may not use those beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against fellow soldiers, harass them, or refuse to do their job. If Akin were not bigoted and had been interested only in “religious freedom,” he could have introduced a clause that read something like this, “Discrimination based on sexual orientation is forbidden in the United States military, and military personnel will not be penalized for private beliefs about human sexuality.” But that was not what Akin wanted. Instead, he has passed a law that could be read in such a way as to give carte blanche to soldiers whose minds are stuck in 1943 and who can’t deal with the fact that some people are naturally attracted to other people of the same gender. A soldier could refuse to serve in a unit or share lodgings with gay soldiers. They could refuse to be commanded by a gay officer. Military chaplains could refuse to perform same-sex weddings. Now, the idea that forcing military chaplains to perform same-sex weddings is a violation of religious freedom is pretty much self evidently asinine, but since logic and conservative, homophobic Christians seem to go together like Anthony Weiner and Twitter, I figure I will explain it anyway. If, say, the First Baptist Church of Cumming wants to refuse to marry same-sex couples, they have a right to do so. I will refuse to attend this church or show it any respect, but I will not force it to change its policy. Military chaplains, however, are a different matter. They are government employees paid for by taxpayers, some of whom happen to be gay. Hence, they do not have a right to use their religious beliefs as an excuse for discrimination. They may hold whatever personal views they wish about gay marriage and homosexuality. But if they cannot provide equal service, regardless of sexual orientation, to our military personnel and their families, then they ought to search for another job. But at any rate, Akin’s clause was mean-spirited and ill-advised. I have stated for years and still say today that gays and lesbians must be allowed to serve openly in the military even if it were to cause every heterosexual soldier to resign. To have any other policy would be to sanction the heckler’s veto. But in fact, gays and lesbians have now been serving in the military for almost a year and a half without much conflict. This was basically what soldiers from countries that dropped their anti-gay bans earlier, such as Britain, predicted would happen. Yet now, it seems that Akin and his ilk are interested in trying to poison our nation with the venom of a dead rattlesnake. In other words, they are attempting to hurt gay and lesbian soldiers by trying to resurrect a policy that will never be in place again. A rattlesnake, it should be noted, is not an evil creature. It is what it was made by nature and does not attack humans save when provoked. The conservative Christian bigots, however, are acting with malice and will strike unprovoked. The good news is, with every passing day, their venom dries up a bit more.

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The Emancipation Proclamation: More Complicated Than Many Realize

(Note: This is a repost of a blog I wrote back in September. I decided to re release it, since January 1st marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation becoming official.)

Perhaps no document in American history is more well known and more misunderstood than the Emancipation Proclamation. Tomorrow will be the 150thanniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. New Year’s Day will mark the 150th anniversary of it becoming finalized. The 100-day gap between the proclamation being issued and taking effect demonstrates the fact that it was intended largely as a military measure, not as a step for human rights. It was set up in such a way that the seceded states had 100 days to reenter the Union before their slaves were freed. This served to put pressure on the Confederate leaders to end the war and come out of it with their human property intact, with the threat that if they continued rebelling they would lose the very thing that they had been fighting for. This did not happen. Fearing that they could not trust the North to allow slavery long term, the South continued to fight, and the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. It is widely believed that the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in the United States. This is, in fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about history. In order to understand the truth, we must realized that, while millions of slaves lived in the Confederacy, approximately 430,000 lived in the border states that had remained in the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation stipulated that, “on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” The proclamation, therefore, applied only to areas under Confederate jurisdiction. Of course, having formed a separate country to perpetuate slavery, the Confederate states were hardly going to obey a proclamation freeing their slaves. The Confederacy had its own constitution, and that constitution made slavery a federally protected institution. In order to be emancipated, a slave in the Confederacy had to make it across Union lines, which many of them did. But it would take the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment almost three years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in order for slavery to be banned everywhere in the United States. So why did Lincoln issue the proclamation? Another popular misconception about the Civil War revolves around the North’s reasons for fighting it. The truth of the matter is that while the South’s reason for seceding was to preserve slavery, the North’s reasons for not letting the South secede were quite different. Abolitionists like Wendell Phillips wanted to pursue the war to abolish slavery, but the vast majority of white Northerners were not abolitionists and had less noble reasons for supporting the war effort. In the first place, they wished to preserve the Union. In the second place, they were economically linked with the South and feared the financial consequences of a divided America. In a letter to antislavery newspaper editor and fellow Republican, Horace Greeley, Lincoln said that while he would personally prefer that slavery be ended everywhere, his top priority was preserving the union. (The letter can be found here:http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm) The Emancipation Proclamation had the potential to help the North win the war. Confederate diplomats had been clamoring for recognition from European powers, such as Britain and France. The more clear it became that the war was about slavery, the less likely it was that Britain and France, where slavery had been illegal for years, would support the Confederacy. Furthermore, as referenced earlier, the proclamation allowed many runaway slaves to join the Union Army. On the other hand, white Unionists in Confederate states, border state residents, and Northern “War Democrats” who favored slavery but sided with the North to preserve the Union might be inclined to stop supporting the war effort. This could be exacerbated by the fear of Northern whites that their states would see an influx of freed slaves. With the knowledge that the North would now never recognize their ownership of their slaves, Confederate leaders might be persuaded to fight even harder. The fear of the proclamation’s military consequences was illustrated by the reaction of Lincoln’s Cabinet when the president discussed the document with them in July 1862. Out of all of Lincoln’s Cabinet, only Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, ironically virtually the only prominent antislavery Democrat not to have left the party in the 1850s, voiced support for issuing the proclamation immediately. Most of the other Cabinet members urged delay. William Seward, Secretary of State, was so determined to delay it that he made the absurd argument that antislavery action might antagonize Britain and France. Lincoln, himself apparently looking for a reason not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation immediately, seems to have convinced himself that this was a legitimate possibility. Among the group, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase was certainly the most antislavery and the most supportive of increased rights for freed blacks. Yet he had ambitions to challenge Lincoln for the Republican Party nomination in the 1864 presidential election and hoped to make the president look unappealing to abolitionists, so he slyly cautioned against the Emancipation Proclamation. Chase also felt that the presidential order was weak and resented Lincoln for not taking a stronger stand against slavery and in favor of black civil rights. As a side note, one wonders if Lincoln appointed him to the position of Secretary of the Treasury, because it was a Cabinet position that would gave Chase very little opportunity to agitate against slavery in a way that might upset Southerners and Northern Democrats. So, in order to avoid making the Emancipation Proclamation look like an act of desperation, Lincoln decided to wait for a major victory by the Union Army. On September 17, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Antietam in a battle that was considered a strategic victory for the North, and five days later, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued. It is certainly true that Lincoln did not do as much as he should have as fast as he should have to end slavery. It is also true that Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery and undoubtedly took some satisfaction that in pursuing his goal of keeping the country together, he had struck a blow against the “peculiar institution.” Furthermore, the proclamation did, somewhat by accident, make emancipation an additional Northern war aim. And it must not be forgotten that in his 1864 election bid, Lincoln largely repudiated his former lukewarm antislavery position and called for a constitutional amendment to ban slavery everywhere in the United States. This amendment passed after his death, and while no one person deserves all the credit for ending slavery, Lincoln must be given some. Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation helped spark a debate, first among abolitionists and later among neo-abolitionist historians, about whether or not Lincoln was a friend of racial justice. Some neo-abolitionist historians, like Lerone Bennett, Jr., see Lincoln as completely undeserving of any accolades and as a rabid white supremacist who had no moral objection to slavery. Others, like James McPherson, believe Lincoln still stands out as a freedom fighter in his own right. I think nuance is important here. Again, Lincoln was no Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, or John Brown. When measured against the many abolitionists who stood up for complete racial equality, he falls quite short. Yet it cannot be denied that Lincoln blew every president before him out of the water in terms of the actions he took against slavery and that, as mentioned earlier, he came to publicly endorse the Thirteenth Amendment even though doing so could have cost him the election.

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January 1, 2013 · 4:23 am