Back in November, the wounds in the black community over California's Proposition 8 were still fresh. The community was divided between more conservative leaders, often clergy, who oppose marriage equality for religious reasons, and civil- and human-rights activists who saw the ballot initiative to prohibit same-sex marriage as a civil-rights violation they could not countenance. While the California chapter of America's oldest civil-rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had come out in opposition to Prop. 8, the national office had remained silent.
The NAACP has been walking a tightrope on gay rights. Polls show that African Americans overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, but much of the high-level leadership of the nation's oldest civil-rights organization opposes legal efforts to deny gays the right to marry. Last week, the national office of the NAACP leapt into the fray when it sent a letter to California legislators urging them to support legislation that would repeal Prop. 8. After meeting with the National Black Justice Coalition, a black LGBT-rights group, and the leadership of the California State Conference, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and NAACP President Ben Jealous agreed to come out publicly in support of repealing Prop. 8.
The move thrusts the NAACP into the middle of a fight that, until now, it has largely avoided, because of the risk of alienating both board-level leadership and rank-and-file members. The California legislature approved a nonbinding resolution yesterday describing Prop. 8 as an improper revision of the state constitution. The resolution contends that Prop. 8 should have passed a two-thirds majority of the legislature before being placed on the ballot. The California Supreme Court is scheduled to hear challenges to Prop. 8 on Thursday.
Jason Bartlett, deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition, was excited by the NAACP's move: "It's the boldest thing I've seen in some time, definitely the boldest thing that they've done on gay rights. … It's historic." Bartlett argues that the NAACP intervening on behalf of gay rights will give other black leaders and organizations cover to do the same. At a meeting of the Caucus of Black State Legislators in December 2008, Bartlett, who is also a state legislator in Connecticut, unsuccessfully tried to get the CBSL to take a position on gay rights. He was rebuffed.
"An executive board member said, 'We will not be the first mainstream black organization to take a position.'" Bartlett says. "In other words, we're not going alone."
With cover from the NAACP, black organizations moving toward support of LGBT rights won't have to go it alone anymore. At the same time, the NAACP still has to deal with opposition to gay rights from within its own ranks. "There is a lot of homophobia in the NAACP," says California Conference President Alice Huffman, who was also a paid consultant to the "No on 8" campaign. "There are a lot of Christians who feel threatened."
The NAACP still hasn't endorsed gay marriage -- but this is the strongest stance it has taken against laws that would prohibit the practice. The distinction is meant to alleviate tension between board members who are religiously opposed to same-sex marriage. But even so, several board members expressed displeasure with the letter Bond wrote to the California Legislature. In the letter, Bond writes, "Proposition 8 subverts … basic and necessary safeguards, unjustly putting all Americans, particularly vulnerable minorities, at risk of discrimination by a majority show of hands."
"There are people on the board … mainly clergy, they misunderstood," Huffman says. "They thought Julian was writing to support same-sex marriage when that is not the case at all."
Recently, Bond and Huffman have arranged the creation of a task force that would deal with the issue of gay marriage at the board level. The composition and guidelines of the task force haven't been established yet, but Huffman tentatively described it as a way to build "additional support on the board level for same-sex marriage and to reduce homophobia on the board level."
The NAACP will not only have to deal with dissent within its own organization but with the stark reality of black opposition to same-sex marriage. While the NAACP still remains the nation's largest civil-rights organization at 300,000 members, both its membership and influence have been waning for some time. At the same time, however, as the country has grown more progressive on issues of gay rights, so has the NAACP.
For Pastor Amos Brown, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, opposition to Prop. 8 had serious consequences. Several weeks after the election, a significant number of donors had pulled out of the local NAACP's fundraising dinner because of his opposition to Prop 8. Brown was angry, but he wouldn't back down from his position.
"We don't live in a theocracy," Brown told me when I spoke with him in November . Brown, who opposes banning same-sex marriage but also says he wouldn't perform a same-sex marriage ceremony in his church, says his dedication to civil rights and opposition to Prop. 8 come from a similar place. He recalls first seeing a picture of Emmitt Till, a youth who was lynched in 1955 for supposedly making a pass at a white woman.
"When I saw that picture," Brown says, "I promised God myself, never would I be mean to people who were different."
Brown's fundraising dinner wasn't ruined. Jealous, the then-brand new president of the NAACP, raised $19,000 to replace the donors who backed out, and even flew in from Baltimore to show his support for Brown.
In an interview with the Prospect in January, Jealous explained his reasons for coming to Brown's aid. "I was there to defend our branch and their right to act on their conscience," Jealous says, "and I was there as a Californian whose brother is gay, and who personally just couldn't stand by."
"I think what remains to be seen is the reaction to the NAACP, which has often been out of touch with the rest of the [the black community]," says blogger and LGBT activist Pam Spaulding. "We have a lot to do to turn back homophobia in the black church and the black community."
Still, Spaulding describes the NAACP's move as "extremely significant." "By and large, black LGBTs are rendered invisible," Spaulding says. "The conversation over the gay community always seems to only be about [white gays]."
While the NAACP's national office has often avoided taking stances on gay-rights issues, some influential leaders within the organization have privately stood in favor of LGBT rights. When the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III was in the running to be the NAACP's new president, Chairman Bond quietly took him aside and asked about his position on Proposition 8. Haynes and Bond agreed that it was a civil-rights issue.
"Those who framed it in moral terms," Haynes says, "were missing out that in this nation, we all deserve equal protection under the law."