John Lewis sees two issues -- civil rights and gay marriage -- through one lens.
He recalled the time, 48 years ago this month, when he and other marchers were stopped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and beaten with billy clubs by state troopers. Then the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he suffered a fractured skull on the day remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”
It marked a pivot in the civil rights movement building for more than a decade. Six months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this week to take up arguments on two cases that could either sanction or strike down same-sex marriage, Lewis, 73, in his 14th term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, sees a parallel.
“What happened in Selma 48 years ago was just one step on the ladder, what happened at Stonewall was just another,” said Lewis, making reference to the 1969 riots by gay activists in New York City against a police raid at a Greenwich Village inn. “As Dr. King used to say when he was asked about interracial marriage, ‘Races don’t fall in love and get married; individuals fall in love and get married,’” he said, recalling the words of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“If two men want to fall in love and get married, it’s their business and no government -- state or federal -- should be able to deny people their love,” said Lewis.
Many opponents to same-sex marriage say the matter should be settled by states, not at the federal level. Lewis said that echoed the opposition to civil rights. “It’s a code,” he said. “We heard it in the 50s, we heard it in the 60s.”
Yet Brian Brown, president of National Organization for Marriage, a Washington-based group that opposes the right of gays to marry, said his organization and its allies are the heirs to the struggle for racial equality. They are “standing up to protect marriage as the union of a man and woman drawing deeply from the civil rights movement.”
Proponents of gay marriage have “spent a lot of money to convince elites that redefining marriage is the wave of the future,” he said, a view opposed by many African Americans who see it as “trying to hijack the civil rights movement.”
“Laws to separate the races are wrong,” Brown said. “Marriage is about bringing sexes together. It’s comparing apples and oranges.”
The cases before the court have drawn so much attention that crowds started camping outside the Supreme Court yesterday to try to secure a place to hear the historic arguments.
The journey on the path toward legalizing gay marriage has been hobbled by setbacks, and the Supreme Court cases this week could erect new roadblocks or ease the way.
As in other social movements, the U.S. Congress may be among the last to offer support, said Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat. “Movements are always from the ground up,” she said. “The last place a movement reaches into is the top of an institution, which is Congress. The institutions are reactive to people, not pro-active.”
That’s the strategy that Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group leading a campaign to legalize same sex marriage nationwide, has followed, using a combination of courtroom action and public opinion campaigns.
“What history tells us is that after a long patchwork struggle, one of two national actors brings the country to national resolution,” he said.
“Those are the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress. They tend to act after a lot of struggles. Some states move to equality, others regress. Sometimes it takes centuries, sometimes decades,” he said. “Persuasion and political struggle are always required to encourage the court do the right thing.”
Change can take generations to happen. In 2003, a Pew Research Center Poll found that 58 percent of Americans opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry, with 33 percent in favor. In a survey of 1,501 adults released March 20, 49 percent now support same sex marriage, while 44 percent oppose.
The report accompanying the poll said “the rise in support for same-sex marriage over the past decade is among the largest changes in opinion on any policy issue over this time period.”
The difference was driven primarily by Americans ages 18 to 32, among whom 70 percent support the right for gays to wed.
In 2004, strategists for President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign supported efforts to place ballot initiatives opposing gay marriage in such competitive states as Ohio to increase turnout by evangelicals and other religious groups that tend to vote Republican. In 2012, supporters of gay marriage helped to forge President Barack Obama’s winning Democratic coalition with their money and votes.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases. One, from California, is brought by two couples challenging the legality of Proposition 8, an initiative passed by voters in November 2008 that banned same-sex marriage. The other case seeks to overturn a 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a heterosexual union. Under the statute, legally married gay couples aren’t entitled to the federal benefits other spouses receive.
The case the court will hear Tuesday stems from Riverside County, California, where Representative Mark Takano, a Democrat, became the state’s first openly gay member of Congress when he was elected in November. He quoted President Abraham Lincoln’s summation on changing public opinion on slavery --“He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statute or pronounces decisions” -- as applicable to the gay rights struggle.
“It strikes me as if this court fails to move forward, we will see a Dred Scott moment where a huge part of the country just rejected outright the decision of the Supreme Court,” said Takano, referring to an 1857 ruling upholding slavery that drew public outrage from abolitionists in Northern states.
If the Supreme Court doesn’t rule in favor of same sex marriage, Lewis said, the movement won’t relent.
“What happened in Selma and the march on Washington 50 years ago, and now, the issue of same sex marriage, all of this is coming together as one struggle, one movement,” he said. “It will not stop. It’s the flow of history.”