As an Indian-American and the son of immigrants, the national holiday that means the most to me is Martin Luther King's Birthday. Through the efforts of men such as Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Thurgood Marshall, civil rights for minorities took large steps forwards. Clearly, there is still much work to do. But their efforts were an inspiration to me and paved the way for a lot of people to have opportunities that they previously did not have.
Recently, in response to John Kerry's comments on gay marriage in Louisiana, about 5000 diaries criticizing Kerry appeared on dailykos and mydd (just kidding!). A recurring theme in the diaries was the comparison of the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement. More specifically, the view of many is that the gay rights movement is the next generation of the civil rights movement.
Fair enough. But before we go forward with the comparison, it behooves the gay rights movement to remember the lessons of the civil rights movement when fighting for gay marriage and other causes.
Much has been made of the political strategy that the Democratic Party must undertake with regards to gay marriage. But based on the Civil Rights movement, politics was not the driving force behind the movement's successes. Rather, these successes boiled down to two forces:
1. Judicial Decisions
2. A Struggle that Required Sacrifice
Some of the greatest successes occurred in the courtroom such as Brown vs. Board of Education. They were not overnight successes, but groups such as the NAACP and lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall used our constitution and what it stands for to move the process forward. We talk about equal rights under the Constitution. This is where the courts come in.
It should be noted that the primary successes of the gay rights movement have been driven by the courts. Sure, Howard Dean signed civil unions into law. But this was only after the Vermont Supreme Court mandated that a remedy must be implemented.
Similarly, it took four years, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court validated gay marriage in their state, leading the way for its acceptance there. Do you really believe that without the court's decision, that gay marriage in Massachusetts would be possible today? I don't.
Other decisions, such as the recent decision overturning Nebraska's same-sex union ban, will also help in changing the tide.
While the courts are an undeniable weapon, the struggle still exists. You can make mandates through the law, but fear still remains. Ask the black students who made history when they walked through the doors of Little Rock Central High School. Ask the 1st black students at the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi. The law gave them the right, but they still had to walk through hostile territory. They did, and they prospered, paving the way for future generations.
And the struggle required sacrifices. Men such as Dr. King and Medgar Evans paid the ultimate price with their lives. Countless others were beaten and arrested.
The lesson? Don't expect this to be an easy battle. And most important, if your "principles" are really important, you have to ask what you are willing to sacrifice on a personal level to make them happen. Principles are easy to pontificate about on paper, but ultimately meaningless unless you are willing to make sacrifices. I'm not saying sacrifices will necessarily be required. But don't expect anybody to hand you anything just because you have "principles"
Certainly, politics are not absent from the debate. But the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act became law only after the courts had made pivotal decisions promoting civil rights. FDR and Harry Truman never addressed the outlawing of discrimination, though Truman did desegregate the military. John F. Kennedy found civil rights legislation to be an impediment to the rest of his agenda, though he supported it in principle, and enforced federal court decision. Finally, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
But even LBJ, who I think gets shortchanged in the whole civil rights debate because of Vietnam and the aura of Kennedy, was a pragmatist on the issue; he had previously voted against civil rights legislation for political reasons as a US Senator. I have no doubt of the importance of civil rights to LBJ. He used the advent of Medicare to facilitate the desegregate hospitals. Even though he could have picked any hospital, his first target was the hospital in Marshall, Texas (30 miles where I lived). Lady Bird was born in nearby Karnak. The statement that this made cannot be denied.
Still, the political landscape has never been receptive to massive change. So when folks say that John Kerry let them down, well, that is their right. But they would do well to remember that he can't really do much for them in the first place. It will be up to the courts. But just as importantly, you have to take the lead in the fights that affect you the most. Nobody will fight battles FOR you, just with you. Civil rights progressed because African-Americans took the lead in their own cause. They dealt with the political realities and continued to fight.
Finally, gay marriage should not a Democratic or Republican issue, but an American issue. The civil rights movement did not succeed because it was a Democratic issue, but because it was an issue that had to be dealt with by ALL of America. It is this view that will lead to success in the gay marriage movement, not the partisan political view.
Finally, I close with this link at Salon.com about same-sex marriage in the state of Washington by Eli Sanders, a gay freelance writer in Seattle. It is a great piece of work, and provides hope for the future.
You may need a free day pass to view, since Salon requires registration