Written by Mary Buffett
Political writer Tim Farley likes to say “the footsteps of Civil Rights only travel in one direction — forward.”
For all of the pathfinding wisdom of the Founding Fathers, our Constitution focused on white males who owned property, a radical idea for its time, because power was concentrated with the landed gentry. If you were a women, non-white, or enslaved on a Southern plantation, you found yourself as a spectator on the sidelines and wondered if the ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence would ever apply to you.
Our Founding Fathers — especially those from the South — may never have intended to free the slaves. Our Founding Mothers — like Abigail Adams — were often left voiceless and could only make an impact when their husbands spoke on their behalf. The great arguments since the signing of the Declaration have focused on who can benefit from the blessings of democracy. Who is included verses who is excluded?
The unintended impact of this country — the reason why so many see it as the beacon of opportunity — comes from our ability to look at our founding documents with modern eyes. While change comes with great effort, often forestalled by the stubbornness of those who are unwilling to embrace the future, we are a better country for it.
Could we have once been a nation where white plantation owners actually owned African Americans based on the color of their skin? The abolitionists of their day were considered the unreasonable radicals. When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it shined a light on the everyday horror of slavery found south of the Mason Dixon line. However, we overcame that. It took a Civil War that nearly wrecked a nation and three subsequent constitutional amendments to address the basic issue of slavery, citizenship and equal protection. However, the unfinished business of full citizenship was still a century away.
Could we have once been a nation where American women were denied the basic right to vote? Was it possible that reasoned men who believed in the abolition of slavery could turn their backs on their wives and their daughters? Yes. However, we overcame that. People who take women’s suffrage for granted forget how close the battle was; the final state needed to confirm the 19th Amendment came down to a single Tennessee state legislator who changed his vote at the last minute. He succumbed to an appeal from a higher power — his mother. However, women were still decades away from anything that resembled equal rights.
Could we have once been a nation where African Americans were denied racial equality because of the color of their skin? Could Americans have legislated our own version Apartheid — called Jim Crow — that legally separated the races on railroads, education, and life? Could The Supreme Court, in Plessey vs. Ferguson (1896), affirm the viewpoint of the worst racists so long as life contoured along the fiction of “separate but equal?” People forget that the Pentagon has twice the number of bathrooms and water fountains needed because half were built for “whites only” and the other half were built for African-Americans. The differences between “Whites Only” and African American public education were too numerous to detail. However, we overcame that. In Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), the NAACP argued that “separate but equal” in public education ran counter to the constitution because separate was never equal. A newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren returned a unanimous ruling but it took the raw bravery of nine African American students at Central High in Little Rock — who were protected by soldiers of the 101st Airborne — to start the change we all take for granted today. Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Acts that finally ended Jim Crow laws throughout the South.
Could we have once been a nation that barred men and women from marrying those they loved because of the different color of their skin? Barack Obama, when he was born in Hawaii in 1960, was the product of a biracial marriage that was still considered illegal in 38 states.
However, in 1958, when Virginia residents Richard and Mildred Loving married, they had to elope to the District of Columbia. Richard was white and Mildred was African American and Cherokee. However when they returned, they were arrested by local police under Virginia’s miscegenation laws and pled guilty and were forced to leave the state under the agreement. However, we overcame that. In Loving vs. the State of Virginia, the Supreme Court flatly rejected Virginia’s Racial Integrity Laws and returned with a unanimous verdict. We got better as a nation.
Could we have once been a nation that barred people from living in the neighborhood of their choice? People forget that San Francisco had a Chinatown was because Asian-American could not live in other parts of the city. Racial and religious covenants contractually people barred from selling their homes to Hispanics, African Americans, Asians or Jews. People forget that when Willie Mays came to San Francisco as the Giants moved westward, real estate covenants barred him from buying a home of his choosing, even if he was the best player in the National League. The mayor of San Francisco was so embarrassed by this that he offered the Mays family his own home.
However, we overcame this. In California, Gov. Pat Brown passed a state law barring racial discrimination in real estate and Lyndon Johnson passed the Open Housing Act in 1968, which made illegal to deny somebody their dream of moving into the neighborhood of the dreams.
In each of these great national questions listed above, hope eventually won out over fear and we became a better nation for it. There were protests from those who refused to change. However, when it was all and done, we expanded the blessing of freedom to others and took the right step forward. In each case, the footsteps of civil rights moved forward.
Now we get to the question of gay marriage. As the public reaction to the oral arguments evolved over the week, it appears that the majority of the American people for the first time are either embracing or accepting of gays or lesbians who wish to marry their true loves.
The comments from Supreme Court Justices made during oral arguments that gays or lesbians who were legally married in some states but still unable to qualify for federal spousal benefit were met with disapproval. As we get closer to reading the Supreme Court holding on the subject, attitudes are shifting so quickly that the Court risks being left in the dust. I believe that a narrow 5-4 majority will declare Proposition 8 unconstitutional and with that, we will step closer fulfilling the modern dream of the framers of the constitution.
We live in a better country. Today we’d be thunderstruck that a person could own another as a slave. We’re shocked when we hear of other countries that will not let their women vote. Separate but equal bathrooms, water fountains, and classrooms only bring universal revulsion from all Americans. Nobody stands in the church door to deny marriages of men and women of different races and backgrounds. Our ability to look at the constitutional rights and ask what the framers meant — through modern eyes — is what makes this nation the world’s great experiment.
No quest for civil rights has seen a rapid shift in the past few years as the ability to gays and lesbians to marry their true love. What seemed like radical idea a decade earlier now is squarely in the mainstream. Denying federal benefits to couples legally married — straight or gay — should be immediately unconstitutional for starters. Throwing out DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) on equal protection grounds should follow in quick succession.
The eternal struggle of the American experience goes on. Will gay men and lesbians finally find the rule set forth in the constitution and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence apply to them? I believe that will be the case. Twenty years from now, people will wonder if we really once lived in a country where gays and lesbians were barred from getting married. As a nation, we will be better still.