The Freedom Riders and Same-Sex Marriage

Civil rights legend, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), speaking at the 2011 Commencement Exercises of North Carolina Central University. Credit: Ray Black III/

We’ve had a rather emotional few days here in the Research Triangle of North Carolina with issues of relevance to the entire country and perhaps of interest to our international readers.

On Saturday morning, my university was graced by an address from Georgia congressman, John Lewis. Not just any congressman, mind you. John Lewis was a major figure in the US civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Lewis actually missed his own college graduation because he was in jail at the time for one of his many nonviolent protests against segregation in the American South. Since then, Lewis has been recognized with over 50 honorary degrees.

Lewis’s address to our graduates came during the week of the 50th anniversary of the “Freedom Riders” – a movement that was commemorated this week with a highly-viewed PBS documentary from the WGBH American Experience series that can now be viewed online. A series of Black and white activists who rode interstate buses from Washington, DC, through the South to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision that deemed Jim Crow laws that then kept African American travelers separated from others were a violation of the Interstate Commerce Act.

Lewis was one of seven whites and six Black members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on the first Freedom Ride. The group was attacked by mobs that included both the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement, beaten mercilessly with bats, iron pipes, and chains. The most horrific beatings took place in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, and the white protesters were singled out for the most vicious treatment. A photograph of Jim Zwerg shown in last week’s CNN story is one of the iconic images of that ride.

20 May 1961, Montgomery, Alabama, USA --- Two blood-splattered Freedom Riders, John Lewis (left) and James Zwerg (right) stand together after being attacked and beaten by pro-segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama. Image © Bettmann/CORBIS

Lewis continued to lead other nonviolent protests. While he was SNCC chairman in 1965, he led a 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery for Black voting rights and to protest the recent killing of a Black nonviolent protester. The march was met at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge by 200 Alabama state troopers and local deputies who assaulted the marchers in front of journalists and camera crews, fracturing Lewis’s skull, and marking a day now known in the civil rights movement as “Bloody Sunday.”

When Lewis spoke to us on Saturday, he said that his generation had no websites, iPods, or cell phones. Their protests used what they had at the time.

“We used our bodies,” Lewis said.

I was near tears listening to this man who had fought for the simple right of regular people to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of the amount of melanins made in their skin. As he closed, he spoke of the need for the graduates to still engage in what he called “good trouble” to continue to fight for a day where there is “one America” regardless of whether you are Black, white, Asian, Latino, Native American…

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But what struck me immediately was that he did not choose that moment to take on the issue of equality among two people who love each other. Perhaps it was because the crowd was about three-quarters African American and he wanted to speak to their issues (although same-sex marriage is an issue in this community as well).

Why I expected even some passing mention of gay marriage is because this man who lived through beatings, imprisonment, suffering, and who still chooses long past retirement age to fight in Congress is one of the most eloquent and forceful Black supporters of the right for people to marry regardless of sexual orientation. Lewis wrote an impassioned 2003 op-ed in the Boston Globe that spoke to this right akin to the civil rights movement and interracial marriage. This editorial is almost eight years old but the issues still remain – here is a large excerpt:

We are now at such a crossroads over same-sex couples’ freedom to marry. It is time to say forthrightly that the government’s exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from civil marriage officially degrades them and their families. It denies them the basic human right to marry the person they love. It denies them numerous legal protections for their families.

This discrimination is wrong. We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans. 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 in bigotry.

Some say let’s choose another route and give gay folks some legal rights but call it something other than marriage. We have been down that road before in this country. Separate is not equal. The rights to liberty and happiness belong to each of us and on the same terms, without regard to either skin color or sexual orientation.

Some say they are uncomfortable with the thought of gays and lesbians marrying. But our rights as Americans do not depend on the approval of others. Our rights depend on us being Americans.

But yesterday, the day after many people I know were talking and tweeting about the PBS Freedom Riders documentary, a religious group converged on the state capitol in Raleigh, NC, to support Republican politicians who plan to introduce legislation banning marriages between loving partners of the same sex.

In this morning’s Raleigh News & Observer, the frontpage photograph of this group shows a Black man in a sea of white folks – a Black man whose right to gather with white people in the South, to drink from the same water fountains as white people, to sit in the same bus station as white people, to sit in the front of the bus like he is here in the front of the crowd – was made possible by pioneers like John Lewis.

The weapons of this crowd were not bats, not pipes, not chains – their weapons were their religion and their hypocrisy and distortion of the message of someone they call their prophet.

I have a prophet, too. I saw him speak this weekend.

The 2003 words of John Lewis ring true in this context, as 3,500 people called for institutional discrimination in the name of Christ:

Some stand on the ground of religion, either demonizing gay people or suggesting that civil marriage is beyond the Constitution. But religious rites and civil rights are two separate entities. What’s at stake here is legal marriage, not the freedom of every religion to decide on its own religious views and ceremonies.

[. . .]

We hurt our fellow citizens and our community when we deny gay people civil marriage and its protections and responsibilities. Rather than divide and discriminate, let us come together and create one nation. We are all one people. We all live in the American house. We are all the American family. Let us recognize that the gay people living in our house share the same hopes, troubles, and dreams. It’s time we treated them as equals, as family.

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