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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8 Responses to The Freedom Riders and Same-Sex Marriage

  1. Dr 27 says:

    Great entry as always, David. As I read through I kept thinking back to being in grad school just a couple of years ago and traveling to these cities, Memphis, Birmingham, even Cincinnati, which has a wonderful museum showing many things (photos, writings, even a cabin) of the fight for freedom … and I count myself lucky because of how these things were possible, by brave men and women who paved to way to allow me to walk freely around places that were (and sometimes still are) hostile for people with my background/ethnic group. Indeed it is sad that there was no mention of how unfair, unjust, and plain illegal it is to deny same-sex couples to marry. That’s why the fight has to keep on going. Wonderful experience indeed and thanks for sharing.

  2. BikeMonkey says:

    Great stuff David and thanks for the pointer to Lewis’ earlier remarks.

    For those who find their prophets in pro-sports, Sir Charles had a few pointed remarks on this topic


    “First of all, society discriminates against gay people,” Barkley said. “They always try to make it like jocks discriminate against gay people. I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.”

  3. Pingback: The Freedom Riders and Same-Sex Marriage – PLoS Blogs (blog) | Gay Marriage News Articles

  4. Kathleen (Wargacki) Lynch says:

    Another eloquent well written passage…I so admire your writings! I think the last debate that I had with my dad was over this issue…becasue he is a mayor he is deemed to marry people..he is against gay marriage & advised me that he would never marry a gay couple..I told him he is deemed by the law to do so if it becomes the law & becoming a mayor and taking the oath deems him to do so…I can’t wait for it to become law…you know I’m sending one of my friends their to get married:)

  5. David Kroll says:

    Kath, I don’t know if you’re aware of this but your father actually married my mom and stepdad who now live in Santa Fe.

    Send him my post and if he still doesn’t agree tell him that I’ll come up there and straighten him out. Parents…you can’t teach them anything about simple mutual respect.

  6. Pingback: John Lewis on Civil Marriage, 2003 | Tangled Up in Blue Guy

  7. Pingback: LGBT in the Chemical Sciences: Outstanding Feature by Linda Wang | Terra Sigillata

  8. Bud Evans says:

    We Are Married…. Let No One Put Asunder

    My spouse and I were married on September 13, 2004 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. We have been together for more than thirty years. When we arrived back home in Kansas, the sky did not fall; dairy cows did not stop producing milk, and gravity was still intact — although common sense and common decency seemed to have left our segment of the planet under the seemingly endless Kansas prairie sky. Yes, we got the expected “Welcome Back Home to the Good ol’ USA!” reception alright to which we’ve sadly grown accustomed as Gay and Lesbian Americans.

    For months, the vile malevolent specter of our very own local home-grown Kansas State Anti-Equality “Heterosexuals Only” so-called Marriage Amendment hung over our heads like the shadowy silhouette of a cowardly mugger ready to strike in ambush from a dark alley. Finally, in early April 2005, a Kansas lynch-mob, drunk with power and prejudice, at last had their little necktie party and strung up our Bill of Rights in the public square of totalitarianism. Apparently, American neo-fascists aren’t satisfied with just being the insufferable bully on the international block, they must also have their pound of flesh at home too.

    So what is so surprising about this scenario? Obviously there is not enough conflict in the world, so malicious malcontents in Kansas, as well as throughout most of the US, feel the need to stir up the flames of division even more. All of this brings to mind my saddest and most sustained observation concerning the United States in general. It is in regard to her citizenry’s constantly evolving contempt for other Americans. Overall, it is Mankind’s greatest single flaw too. But in the USA it is the perversion of Christian fellowship and tolerance that is being twisted into a pseudo-religious/right-wing political dogma of dissimulation and group-hate which will be the next great stain on America.

    Political gay-bashing and religion-based bigotry has quickly become this new century’s equivalent of racism, gender inequality and ethnic strife. Fanatical homophobia has been effortlessly revived and poisonously retooled from the last century’s panoply of prejudices so eagerly embraced in these perpetually un-United States. Once again, the drama is much the same — only the characters on the stage are played by different actors.

    As this tragedy unfolds, those whose duty it is to uphold America’s promise of equality once again turn a blind eye to this country’s absolute assurances of equal justice. How did this nation’s immutable guarantees of liberty degenerate into such an arrogant and heartless popularity contest in America? If you don’t like your neighbor, just simply write them out of the Constitution. Is that it? Is that all it takes to make them disappear? Just fashion a paper noose out of group-specific malicious laws and then lynch your neighbor on a gallows once called the Bill of Rights. Is that the level of barbarity to which we have regressed in America?

    No, I did not expect homophobes to throw rice at our wedding, but occasionally, albeit foolishly, I expect a modicum of class from people I do not know — such as the simple civility of minding one’s own business. I certainly do not appreciate strangers meddling in my personal affairs; especially when it concerns my marriage. That is not only bad manners, but it is truly beneath contempt.

    So, unless Canada’s Marriage Laws or the few Marriage Equality U.S. “free” States fair laws are changed to reflect the rest of America’s narrow-minded contempt for her own most vulnerable citizens, then my marriage will stand in at least a few zones of freedom in the U.S. as well as elsewhere abroad where equality actually means something. And there is nothing any thug in the guise of religion or government can do about it. No amount of hatred for my spouse and me will ever un-marry us. I am confident that those miscreants who envy and despise our joyful union, as well as those unethical politicians who seek political power by inciting a mob mentality in the general public, will not be looked upon favorably by history nor by future generations.

    The truth is that decent people elevate themselves by their own achievements and talents; not by standing on the backs of others who are least able to defend themselves. It’s a very sad commentary on modern society, as well as on this really not-so-Christian country after all, that people will still do to others what they would not tolerate having done to them. That is the classic definition of a fascist. And that is certainly not what either The Founding Fathers or Christ would have envisioned for this not-yet-great nation.

    Jesus who had embraced the disenfranchised, and who had walked amongst the outcasts of society, would weep today for what is done in his name. Equally shameful is the disrespect shown to the drafters of our Bill of Rights who took great pains to protect the “inalienable rights” of the less politically powerful against the tyranny of the majority. Just try to keep in mind those words: “Liberty and Justice for All…” and “That which you do unto the least among you, you do unto me.” And according to all belief systems which respect the dignity of Humankind, whether secular or religious in nature, that mandate is simply this: All people are created equal in all ways and they are endowed with the same inherent rights, in all things, as all others — there are no exceptions. Too bad some people still refuse to see it that way.

    Bigotry has always had a peculiar way of eviscerating virtue when truth becomes particularly inconvenient in advancing petty prejudices and an anti-social agenda. Whether one makes a religion out of politics (such as in Nazi Germany or in Communist regimes) or fabricates politics from religion (such as fundamentalist deity-based totalitarianism anywhere on Earth) the end result is the same. The end result is intolerance, and that is the nexus of most human strife and suffering on this planet since time immemorial.

    America owes a birthright of equality in all things, great or small, under the legal umbrella of citizenship which she extends to all of her children. No one’s personal religious, ethical, political or any other belief system can ever be allowed to dictate which Americans should have rights and which ones should not. If that is not anathema to the revolutionary spirit of this country and an affront to our Bill of Rights, then nothing is.

    The courage to stand up for the most vulnerable citizens among us against institutional and popular prejudice is a rare act of both bravery and virtue. People of good will, working together, perhaps can someday make America a shining example of a Constitutional Republic that keeps its solemn promise of equality for all. Maybe we can remind others that this nation’s guarantee of individual liberty would never allow one faction to ever vote away another citizen’s civil rights in a thoughtless expression of group-hate. I still believe that there are good and fair people in this country. But considering the lessons of the past, I hope we don’t have to wait for the next generation to grow up in order to find them.

    Yes, contrary to the presuppositions of inculcated hate and politically manipulated hysteria, there really is room enough at the matrimonial table for every consenting, non-related, pair of adult human beings who wish to marry in this world — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, politics, gender identity or sexual orientation. It is obvious to any student of history that loving, mutually supportive same-sex romantic relationships are as old as Mankind. It has always been so and will continue to be so as long as there is a human race.

    Let us also not forget that the civil rights of Gays and Lesbians are protected in most of the industrialized Western world. In those truly civilized nations, same-sex oriented individuals can be open and honest about their orientation. Even in this country, which has such a long and shameful history on the issue of human rights, homosexual intimate relationships are just as legally protected under the U.S. Constitution as heterosexual intimate relationships — as wisely decided by the Supreme Court in the Lawrence -vs- Texas decision on June 26, 2003.

    Currently, the personal lives of tens of millions of Gay and Lesbian Americans are the bloody battlegrounds where this never-ending war against civil rights is being fought. It is a war that perennially pits progress and egalitarianism against the forces of ignorance and maliciousness. We may lose many battles to those foes who divide this great house against itself — which we call America — but ultimately we will win the final war against the enemies of human dignity and freedom. Of that I have no doubt.

    Those who fanatically and sanctimoniously wave the banner of “tradition” are in reality only selfishly trying to protect their own special status at the expense of others. Obviously, if tradition was always such a virtuous thing to uphold we’d still have slavery; women wouldn’t have the right to vote, and America would have king.

    The horrors of human bondage are most often conceived and perpetuated by using that contemptible excuse of upholding the self-serving status quo. Unquestionably, when tradition is used as justification to oppress others it becomes a thing of evil and an enemy of civilization. Old notions and elitists traditions must yield to inclusiveness and egalitarianism if peace is ever to be realized and a stable society maintained.

    A hallmark of civilization is marriage, and marriage is both a binding oath of mutual loyalty and a personal contract which clearly details responsibilities and rights entered into between two romantically involved individuals who pledge to share their lives with one another. That very same institution belongs to all loving, non-related, adult couples. No apartheid-like system of separate tables (i.e. civil unions, domestic partnerships, etc.) will ever suffice. To deny same-sex couples who are also engaged in constitutionally protected, intimate, mutually supportive relationships the same protections and rights that many married heterosexual couples take so easily for granted is an affront to human dignity and an assault on American principles of fairness.

    Too many brave and good citizens, Gay and Straight alike, have fought and died on too many bloody battlefields so that all people can partake of freedom. No one should belittle their ultimate sacrifice by parceling out equality as if it were their own special gift to give to a favored segment of society. I truly believe (just as I previously stated in an essay I wrote which appeared in the Kansas City Star) that there is more than enough room at the same table of marriage for each of us who wish to take on all the responsibility it demands, as well as reap its rewards. As tempestuous as marriage sometimes is, it most often provides for couples pledged to one another for life, be they heterosexual or same-sex couples, the only real promise of a safe harbor in which to lay anchor and to protect their most precious cargo — each other.

    We too have sworn an oath — to have and to hold ’till death do us part. My spouse and I made that promise to each other officially on September 13, 2004 when we were finally, legally allowed to be married in a country to the north which respects human dignity and individual liberty. Although, I still can remember that one cold winter night on January 10th, 1975, when Bill and I first met — we were just kids in our early twenties then. We also made that pledge, albeit unofficially, to one another. Now as then, in good times and in bad times; forsaking all others; ’till death do us part; let no one put asunder.

    It means just as much to us today as then. And perhaps just a little bit more, because at least a few more compassionate people and a few more civilized nations are finally starting to respect our right to be recognized as a family at last. They know, as we do, that love is the most important ingredient that makes a family. Families can’t exist without it. All kinds of families spring into existence because of it. That is the bedrock of marriage. Nothing else is required except devotion — plus the courage to fight for the ones you love in the face of adversity. That is what actually makes a family. And, in case anyone forgets, that is what marriage is truly all about.

    (C) Bud Evans 2006 & 2010

    [originally published in 2006 and then revised in 2010 to reflect the growing number of Marriage Equality States which have joined the 21st Century by rejecting anti-GLBT bigotry as an official state policy]

    (Bud Evans is a studio artist and writer who lives with his partner, Bill, for over thirty-five years who has also been his spouse since September 13, 2004 when they were legally married in Vancouver, B.C., Canada)