This isn't the first time the NAACP has stepped out on principle for an issue that affects the lives of LGBT people. Nor is it the first time they will experience a predictable, orchestrated backlash. Those of us celebrating their decision to support marriage equality must now also step up on the organizations behalf.
Over the weekend, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization took the logical yet heroic step of publicly supporting marriage rights for gay couples. In doing so, the NAACP has joined President Obama, and Hispanic civil rights leaders in dramatically accelerating the movement for marriage equality and hastening the day when it becomes the law of the land.
The exhilaration and pride I felt as a black lesbian in my civil rights organization took me back nearly 20 years when the NAACP stepped out on a skinnier limb at a pivotal moment to stand up for LGBT equality.
In 1993 as a co-chair for the March on Washington, I was called on to meet with NAACP Board Chair William Gibson about the possibility of their national board endorsing the march.
I flew to South Carolina and met with him for several hours in the lobby of a hotel. He told me about his work registering voters and his desire to re-energize young people in the NAACP work. He asked me questions about homophobia at the Air Force Academy when he learned I had been a cadet. I told him about classmates of mine who had been kicked out of school in their final year because they were gay. I explained my own decision to depart rather than risk violating the honor code or a dishonorable discharge.
Gibson said he believed that leaders within their organization could get the endorsement from the board, but that there would be significant resistance in some quarters. He agreed to step out personally first to signal the direction he wanted the board to take.
We sent out a press release praising Gibson's personal stand on the military ban and the march.
NAACP Chairman Joins the March on Washington in Condemning US Anti- Gay Military Policy
The head of one of the nation's oldest civil rights groups has joined efforts to repeal the ban on gays in the military. Dr. William F. Gibson, national Chairman of the Board of NAACP and a supporter of the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights notes the similarities in objections to Blacks in the military and those now being voiced by opponents of repealing the ban.
"The alibis and excuses they're giving are the same ones they tried to use--to keep Black Americans out of the military. They said white soldiers would not be able to sleep in the same barracks, use the same latrines and would not take orders from Black superiors," Gibson said. "No citizen should be excluded from any aspect of life because of race, religion, or sexual orientation."
(Here's a brief clip of Gibson's speech. Go to the 1.24 minute mark)
Dr. Gibson plans to participate in the March on Washington in an effort to build coalitions between minority groups.
"If they had put our civil rights to a vote today, I'm not convinced the measure would pass," Gibson said. "We face the same opposition and we must coalesce to oppose these common foes."
When the word came a week later that the full board voted to endorse we were ecstatic. Here's the press release we sent out:
NAACP Joins Marchers to Urge Completion of Unfinished Civil Rights Agenda
Washington, DC -- In a historic move, leaders of the gay & lesbian, women's rights and religious communities were joined today by the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, in supporting the National March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation on Sunday, April 25, 1993 in Washington, DC.
In an unprecedented decision, the NAACP's national board of directors voted unanimously to endorse the March on Washington as the issue of civil rights for gays and lesbians exploded in the national consciousness.
The endorsement "marks the beginning of a new and very important coalition," stated Dr. William Gibson, chair of the NAACP Board of Directors. "The NAACP supports efforts to end discrimination against gay men and lesbians in areas of American life where all citizens deserve equal protection and equal opportunity under the law. The NAACP endorses and will participate in this historic national march."
The backlash that Chairman Gibson predicted came fast and furious in some areas of the country. We heard that conservative churches urged parishioners to turn in their membership cards. Several large funders were threatening to cut them off and other dissenters were planning to depose the leadership. Days before the march I was told by an friend within the NAACP to expect a phone call that would likely announce that they would keep the endorsement in effect but no speakers would be sent.
When the call came from NAACP Executive Director Ben Chavez was braced for the worst. He said he knew we were hearing the reports and reading articles about internal protests and external pressure. He wanted to call personally to let us know that he, the board chair and the NAACP national president -elected by the chapters- would all be on hand. "We are with you." he said. It was a phrase he made the center point of his comments from the stage.
Once again the NAACP has shown leadership as a civil rights standard-bearer. They no doubt are experiencing some pushback but almost 20 years later they are also hearing support from a growing base of support. Those of us beaming with pride, celebrating this bold stand timed for maximum impact must do more than applaud from the sidelines.
Today is a good day to renew your NAACP membership. The nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization is fighting for all of us. All of us need to fight for it.