By Robert Mann
As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear two cases this spring that may determine the constitutionality of laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, my thoughts turn to a long-dead Georgia senator and a 1997 speech about him that I delivered in Athens, Georgia.
The occasion was the 100th birthday of the late Richard Russell, the longtime U.S. senator from Georgia who led the Southern forces allied against civil rights for much of the 1950s and the early 1960s. I was honored to be among three scholars to address an audience at the University of Georgia on Russell’s life. I had just published my political history of the civil rights movement, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights, and, therefore, spoke on Russell’s civil rights record.
It was not a record to admire, unless you were a racist, white supremacist. While the courtly Russell was not a mean-spirited demagogue in the style of Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi or even South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, he had nonetheless been the very effective leader of a bloc of racist Southern senators who filibustered and foiled the civil rights movement in Congress for decades.
And Russell, whatever his admirable personal attributes, was a racist. That is, he believed that whatever their commendable personal attributes, blacks were not then fit to live on equal footing with whites. He didn’t propose stripping them of whatever federal or state benefits they deserved; among other things, he believed the South had a disproportionate share of black citizens, which he regarded as a problem.
In 1949, and again in 1958, Russell had proposed a bizarre plan for a federal Voluntary Racial Relocation Commission, which he hoped would achieve “a more equitable distribution of the white and colored races throughout the United States.” “If the Negro population were spread more evenly over all sections of the nation — thus giving each state an equal share of the race problem,” he explained, “it would be a substantial contribution to the easing of racial tensions and to providing a permanent solution.”
That Russell wasn’t embarrassed to advance such an idea in public tells you something about his mindset on race, but also about the constituency he represented.
As I prepared my remarks for the 1997 symposium, I did so knowing that Russell’s family would be in the audience. The life-long bachelor had no children, but he did have siblings who produced devoted nieces and nephews who loved him and took great pride in Uncle Dick’s role as a respected national leader on a host of issues in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, including national defense and agriculture.
As I composed my presentation, I quickly realized there was little I could do to spare Russell’s family the indignity of hearing the words I eventually uttered during the ceremony to celebrate their beloved uncle’s 100th birthday: “Richard Russell was a racist.”
Afterwards, Russell’s family was gracious and kind to me, but I know it could not have been pleasant to hear that that their uncle’s fight to deny basic human rights to black Americans was such a prominent part of his legacy.
And a tragic legacy it was.
Fast forward to 2010, when I was invited to speak at the premiere of a PBS documentary on the life of Hubert Humphrey, Russell’s opponent in the civil rights debate of 1964. To me, and many others, Humphrey was among the more heroic senators of his era, a visionary and courageous leader, not just on civil rights but on antipoverty legislation, education reform, and nuclear disarmament, to name a few.
It was Humphrey who, at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, forced his party to adopt a strong civil rights platform plank with this stirring declaration in his speech, “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
As you might expect, my praise of Humphrey’s civil right record was fulsome, as were the remembrances of him in the wonderful documentary.
Like the Russell forum years earlier, this event was also attended by family members, including Humphrey’s son, Robert, and some near-family, including a Humphrey protégé, former Vice President Walter Mondale. But unlike the Russell event in 1997, this was a celebration of the man’s contribution to human rights, not an embarrassed apology or rationalization.
Today, in Congress and on the Supreme Court, sit dozens of men and women whose children will one day attend events honoring their parents and grandparents, very much like the ones I have described. Biographies will be written, documentaries produced, legacies examined.
I never met Richard Russell, but after years of reading about him and interviewing his family, friends, colleagues and staff, I’m fairly certain that he would not be proud of his role in thwarting the civil rights of millions of black Americans. Russell might not have immediately accepted the verdict of history, but in so many ways he was a reasonable and pragmatic man. For example, once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, Russell – who had led the Senate filibuster against it – urged his constituents to recognize and obey it as the law of the land.
My intent here is not to persuade anyone on the merits of marriage equality. For those arguments, I would refer you this link.
My aim, however, is to suggest that our nation’s thinking on this issue – like civil rights almost 50 years ago — is moving inexorably in the direction of full citizenship. Nine states – Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington — now guarantee marriage equality for its same-sex couples.
Those nine states are the leading indicators of the big changes to come.
But there is another, more-profound indicator of our future on this issue – demographics.
Voting-age citizens under 30 overwhelmingly approve of marriage equality (67-29 percent in a recent Quinnipiac Poll), while Americans over 65 are overwhelming opposed (56-35 in the same poll.) Overall, Americans are almost evenly split on the issue (48-46 in favor of same-sex marriage), but the trend is moving strongly in favor of marriage equality. Just four years ago, Americans were opposed by a margin of 55-36 percent.
Take an informal poll on almost any college campus and you will likely be met mostly with blank or confused stares that say, “Why is this even an issue?”
Today’s young Americans, of course, are tomorrow’s voting majority. Because of this generational shift, within a decade, or sooner, in most states there will be little political gain in opposing marriage equality. To the contrary, those who thwart the progress of human rights will likely pay a severe price.
This is not to say that the marriage equality movement shouldn’t continue to try persuading those 30 and over to change their thinking. They – we – should.
But simple math will eventually decide this issue. As columnist George Will said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” “Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It’s old people.”
In the younger American generation are the sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of governors, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.
I know that laws should not be made by those who only ask, “What will my children think of my actions in 30 years?”
Or, maybe, that’s exactly how our laws should be made.
Right now, too many political leaders appear concerned only with winning the approval of the most extreme, intolerant voices in their party. They play on the fears and ignorance of the people. They concern themselves with the judgment of their constituents in the next election and not the judgment of history.
So, maybe it’s time for our leaders to engage in a brief visualization exercise.
It goes like this: Imagine a forum, 30 years hence, held to commemorate your career in public service. At that event, some speaker, like me, stands at a podium and discusses what you did when Congress or the Supreme Court debated marriage equality. Your children and grandchildren are in that audience.
Do they swell with pride when they hear about your decisions?
Or, do they leave ashamed and embarrassed to learn that, when the moment came to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights, you chose to stay in the shadows?
- How gay equality became the new normal of US politics in 2012 | Ana Marie Cox (guardian.co.uk)
- Polling Shows Strong Support For Marriage Equality In Illinois (lezgetreal.com)
- Prop. 8, DOMA Will Have their Day in Court (yubanet.com)
- What State Could Be The Next Marriage Equality Battleground? (queerty.com)