A symbol of civil rights. But which ones?

Photographer: Win McNamee

Obama Should Use Selma to Push Gay Rights

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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President Barack Obama will deliver what could be the most important civil rights speech of his presidency on Saturday. But the most powerful words he can utter aren’t about race.

Obama will be in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack on civil rights marchers by state troopers and local vigilantes. One hundred years after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, southern whites were still fighting to keep the Union divided in two -- white and black, separate and unequal.

QuickTake Voting Rights

Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” spurred President Lyndon Johnson to push, and Congress to pass, a law protecting voters from racial discrimination. President Obama will pay tribute to those who risked their lives to secure their rights. He'll probably criticize recent laws that make it harder for people to vote. And he may discuss the inequalities plaguing the African-American community today -- in education, income and incarceration.

But if Obama wants his words to be remembered 50 years hence, he will have to confront head-on the biggest civil rights question facing the country today: same-sex marriage.

This week, the Alabama Supreme Court barred local judges from following a federal court order to issue same-sex marriage licenses. That amounts to an open revolt against the federal judiciary -- and a reminder of Alabama’s ugly history of defying federal orders on civil rights. 

When Alabama Governor George Wallace took his stand in the school house door in 1963 to block integration at the University of Alabama, President John F. Kennedy didn’t just direct the Alabama National Guard to protect the two students attempting to register for classes. That night, Kennedy also gave an Oval Office address explaining his decision and challenging the nation to embrace full equality for all races. It was one of the most important speeches in American history.

A historic speech is often made as much by its occasion as it is by its author. There will be other opportunities for Obama to give a speech connecting gay rights to civil rights before the Supreme Court rules on the matter in June, but none that can match the chance he has on Saturday.

Not only has Alabama become the epicenter of resistance to same-sex marriage; many in the African-American community with traditional religious beliefs were slow to embrace gay rights. That's changing, but slowly. In Selma, Obama has an opportunity to push further, challenging African-Americans in the same way that Kennedy challenged whites in 1963.

Doing so would undoubtedly spark criticism from African-Americans and others who don't view marriage as a civil right. But that is precisely why such a speech would be so powerful -- and so important to the way historians will view his record on gay rights.

Obama’s position on same-sex marriage has been a case study in political calculation: He was for it before he was against it, and then he supported a states’ rights position before he saw it as a constitutional right. Kennedy, too, had moved cautiously on civil rights. But when the moment arrived, he didn't shy from it.

Saturday could be Obama’s Kennedy moment. Will he seize it? Will he challenge Americans to embrace marriage as a civil right, linking it to the African-American community’s long struggle for equality –- a message he is uniquely positioned to deliver? And will he do so explicitly –- not as a rhetorical aside, but as a central message of his speech?

Such a speech would require a level of political courage that Obama has not yet shown on gay rights, but it’s a message the country is ready to hear from the president. There is no better place for him to deliver it than in Selma.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net