(The Root) — Leaders of the NAACP said on Monday that their affirmation of marriage equality — implicitly supporting widespread efforts to make same-sex marriages legal — was a response to political groups who have been using the issue of same-sex marriage as a "wedge issue."
Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the 103-year-old civil rights organization, and Roslyn M. Brock, its chairman, both said that the NAACP's national board had been driven to action not by President Obama's recent comments in support of same-sex marriage but by attempts from political conservatives to use gay marriage to rouse conservative voters. The press conference was held at the organization's national headquarters in Baltimore.
Jealous said that the NAACP was concerned by the spread to "an ever-increasing number of states" of attempts to restrict marriage equality. He mentioned in particular Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage in California, which is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as similar measures in North Carolina and Maryland. Jealous also expressed his concern about how "members of Congress have taken again to using budget votes and other tricks to restrict marriage equality."
Jealous was at times visibly moved as he spoke about the issue. At one point during his remarks he paused, saying that he felt a personal connection with the cause of marriage equality. "My parents' own marriage was against the law at the time," he said, explaining that interracial marriage was forbidden in Maryland in 1966, when his father, Fred Jealous, a white counselor from Maine, married Ann Todd, a black marriage-and-family therapist from Baltimore.
"They had to travel to Washington in order to get married," he told The Root. "The procession back to Baltimore for a party afterward was seen by some as a funeral procession because of all the cars." Jealous also said that marriage equality is "one of the key issues of our day."
Laying out the NAACP's guiding principles of political, educational, social and economic equality for all people, and challenging discrimination under the law, Brock said that the endorsement of marriage equality is about the right to be treated equally in the eyes of government. In measured words, however, neither Brock nor the organization's official statement used the phrase "same-sex marriage"; rather, they stuck to the general principle of "marriage equality."
Asked about the vote to approve the statement on Saturday at the board's quarterly meeting in Miami, Jealous denied reports that there had been two "nays" in a voice vote by some 60 members of the board, reflecting resistance by some representatives of black churches to endorsing gay marriages. "That would be a lie," he said.
One of the three board members who attended the press conference with Brock and Jealous was Bishop William Graves, from a Christian Methodist Episcopal church in Memphis, Tenn. Graves declined to answer questions after the press conference.
But Donald Cash of Maryland, another board member at the presser, said that he was proud to be representing an organization that "practices what it preaches." He added, "A lot of organizations talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk."
Cash confirmed Jealous' and Brock's accounts of a civil rights organization driven by a commitment to equality rather than political expediency. He said that the issue was not on the agenda of the board meeting on Saturday but "just came up" because of some members' concern about attempts to use anti-gay sentiment to rev up voter support.
In her statement, Brock elaborated on the thinking of the board members. "The NAACP did not issue its support of marriage equality from a personal, moral or religious perspective," said Brock. "We deeply respect differences of personal conscience on the religious definition of marriage, and we strongly affirm the religious freedom of all as protected by the First Amendment. As the nation's leading and oldest civil rights organization, it is not our role, nor our intent, to impress how any place of worship can act in its own house."
As reported in Blogging the Beltway, Jealous said that the board's vote isn't much of a departure from past positions it has taken on same-sex marriage. Individual leaders of the organization have spoken in favor of allowing gay people the right to marry (including Jealous and Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond), and the organization has officially opposed anti-marriage-equality laws on several occasions, including ballot measures in North Carolina and California as well as the Defense of Marriage Act.
"What's changed is that this is the first time that we have made a full statement on marriage equality that goes beyond the circumstances of any proposed law or any one state," said Jealous. "We feel it's important that all understand our commitment to equality for all under the law [and] the Constitution, and our commitment to marriage equality specifically."
Jealous said that he expected the NAACP's statement to have an impact on the debate in the black community, which polls have shown is less supportive than whites of same-sex marriage. "The NAACP has an 85 percent approval rating [in the black community]," he said. "In many communities, [our stated] positions matter."
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.