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NAACP president: Continue 20th century trend of expanding rights

Benjamin Jealous
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
NAACP president Benjamin Jealous made a case against approving the Minnesota marriage amendment.

Flanked by two dozen leaders of the Twin Cities African-American community, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous Monday said black Minnesotans have a number of reasons to vote down the proposal to amend the state’s constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage.

“The notion that the state would actually enshrine discrimination into the Constitution should send a shiver down every spine,” he said. “We as a community of color have a vested interest in continuing the trend of the 20th century of expanding rights.”

Jealous’ parents’ interracial marriage took place in 1966, a year before Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws. They were married in Washington, D.C., and were accompanied home to Maryland by a procession of cars whose headlights were lit, he said.

Plenty of people were outspoken in their opposition to mixed-race marriages at the time, Jealous said, “but I have not met one person since who is proud they supported anti-miscegenation laws.”

Jealous was joined by Jeff Martin, president of the NAACP’s St. Paul chapter; African American Leadership Forum Director Chris Stewart; Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minn.; and Sarah Walker of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and a board member of the vote-no coalition that organized the press conference, Minnesotans United for All Families

Minnesota law already prevents gays and lesbians from marrying, Jealous continued. If the amendment is defeated, state-sanctioned same-sex marriages would not begin the day after the election.

'We must stand in solidarity'

“What changes the next day?” he asked a small gathering at a press conference at St. Paul’s Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. “You’ve just changed the trend in this state from a century of using the Constitution to expand rights to one of using the constitution to restrict rights.”

Chirs Stewart
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
“We can’t be silent in this without being complicit in this assault on our families,” said African American Leadership Forum Director Chris Stewart.

Martin and Stewart agreed. “From the NAACP perspective, it is offensive,” Martin said. “If we start limiting civil rights in general, then guess who’s on the agenda next?”

“We can’t be silent in this without being complicit in this assault on our families,” Stewart added.

“There are many LGBT people in the African-American community,” Walker noted. “We must stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters for justice and to be able to marry and form a family with who they want.”

'There's a trend in this nationally'

For the same reasons, Jealous said he hoped African-Americans would also reject the proposed voting amendment, which he said would make it much more difficult for minorities to vote. “There’s a trend is this nationally,” he said. “Our people are smart enough to see through it.”

Voting no would send a signal to the groups working to pass amendments around the country that their “much bigger strategy of splitting the black voting block” to damage Barack Obama’s re-election effort won’t work, Jealous said.

Internal documents from the national group that has coordinated anti-gay-marriage campaigns throughout the country, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), were unsealed earlier this year as part of a federal lawsuit in Maine. The memos outline a broad political strategy to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks,” “expose [Barack] Obama as a social radical” and even to ensure that the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo stays open.

“Gay marriage is the tip of the spear, the weapon that will be and is being used to marginalize and repress Christianity and the church,” one of the memos states. “What does the gay marriage idea mean once government adopts it? It means faith communities that promote traditional families should be treated in law and culture like racists.”

'We have an opportunity to make history'

Jealous insisted NOM’s efforts would backfire. “The far right extremists who have invested in both of these [proposed amendments] will be forced to re-evaluate their strategies in other states,” he said. “We have an opportunity to make history.”

In May, two weeks after Obama said he supported same-sex marriage, the 103-year-old NAACP’s board of directors voted to support marriage equality. One of the group’s motives was the way race was depicted in the run-up to North Carolina’s vote to amend its constitution, Jealous said Monday.

“We realized we can no longer fight this state by state,” he said. “We have to fight it nationally.”

In 2008, the NAACP signed up 128,000 new voters, he said. As of last week, the number of new voters registered by the group for this election topped 425,000.

Polls show eroding opposition to gay marriage

Polls have shown opposition to same-sex marriage eroding among African-Americans, particularly in the wake of Obama’s proclamation and the NAACP vote.

In response to reporters’ questions, Jealous said he is aware that a number of other prominent Twin Cities African-American leaders are campaigning in favor of the amendment, and that popular wisdom is that most blacks oppose same-sex marriage.

Pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist church in Minneapolis, Rev. Jerry McAfee is among those who have campaigned for the vote-yes effort. Shiloh Temple International Ministries Bishop Richard D. Howell Jr. is another who has worked with the Minnesota Catholic Conference and Minnesota for Marriage to pass the amendment.  

“When you’re talking about marriage, the reality is you’re going to have some folks focusing on rites, R-I-T-E-S, and some on rights, R-I-G-H-T-S,” he said. “It tends to be the opponents [of gay marriage] in the black community who are the most vocal.”  

Asked about polls that showed 70 percent of African-Americans who voted in favor of Prop 8, the gay-marriage ban enacted in California in 2008, Jealous was blunt. “One of the reasons we remember Prop 8 is we were scapegoated,” he said. “The entire black vote did not add up to the margin [of victory].”

Engaging African-Americans earlier in process

Since then, “marriage-equality groups have learned to engage communities of color much earlier on,” he said. Minnesotans United has worked to do this by fielding culturally, religiously and racially specific organizers and by engaging in demographically targeted phone banking, among other efforts.

After the press conference, Jealous took part in a forum at the Minneapolis Urban League with state Commissioner of Human Rights Kevin Lindsey and Insight News Publisher Al McFarlane. The discussion will be broadcast later this month on McFarlane’s KFAI public affairs show.

Jealous is the 17th president of the NAACP. Age 35 when he was elected in 2008, he is also the youngest person ever to lead the group.

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