Memphis is an odd, wonderful town. This city, which has been so integral to the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, and in which I have made my home for years, still struggles in many ways to achieve the dreams of justice for all advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated here in 1968. On April 4, the 44th anniversary of that event, vigils and remembrances were held around the National Civil Rights Museum in Downtown Memphis, and there was a visible contingent from the LGBT community, joining the crowd in paying homage to Dr. King and keeping alive the spirit of his famous words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
When President Obama announced last month that his position on marriage equality had “evolved,” it was a turning point here and nationwide on that arc. Though the Civil Rights movement and the movement for LGBT equality are not the same, they share common threads. There are those who scoff at the two being connected in any way, and there are surely gay rights supporters who perhaps inadvertently gloss over the sheer brutality of what happened in Memphis and around the country during the Civil Rights Movement, but as Dr. King’s late wife Coretta Scott King said in 2003, “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people... but I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
With those words in mind, it was heartening this month to be a participant, with our organization Truth Wins Out, as the Shelby County Democratic Party took a stand for justice for all people by following President Obama’s lead and officially coming out in support of marriage equality. To our knowledge, this county party is the first in the South to take that step, which, considering Memphis’s history, seems appropriate.
Folks who aren’t too familiar with the South might not be at fault for watching the national headlines on most issues involving minorities and concluding that the region is fairly hopeless, and Tennessee is certainly no stranger to embarrassing itself in public when it comes to social and scientific issues. Over the past year, Tennessee’s legislature has considered bills banning the use of the word “gay” in schools; banning any sex-ed that discusses “gateway” activities to sex including, but not limited to, hand-holding, kissing and, presumably, talking; making sure that antigay kids’ right to bully is protected; and ensuring that the nonexistent “debate” over evolution be re-opened in schools, in an attempt to send us back to the days before that awful science teacher Scopes had the audacity to teach science in his classroom. Indeed, activists around the state are exhausted from merely attempting to read the barrage of ignorant, hateful legislation introduced by Tennessee’s finest wingnuts over the last year.
But amidst all this, a new generation of voices is speaking, louder than ever, fighting for everyone’s Constitutional rights. Elizabeth Rincon, the young, vibrant director of fundraising for the Shelby County Democratic Party, notes that, since President Obama’s and the local party’s announcements, “[they] have had an entire new generation of young, potential activists come to join the team. This movement shows the older generations that we are here and ready to effect change. That change is equality for all, and we are ready to work seven days a week to make that happen.”
Some have dismissed Obama’s support of marriage equality as a political calculation or a lame gesture. Of course it’s a political calculation — that’s the kind of calculation politicians make. The important part is that it’s also the right thing to do.
Some might also consider the SCDP’s platform change to be a mere gesture and say, “what does it matter that a local party is endorsing marriage equality?” It matters because gestures add up. When Barack Obama became the first sitting president to speak up for full marriage rights for gays and lesbians, his words paved the way for others who might have been sitting on the fence on the issue to go ahead and do the right thing as well. The more that people, politicians and party chapters add their voices to the chorus demanding full equality for all people, the more full equality becomes the mainstream position.
Recent polls show that a majority of Americans support marriage equality, and that number will only grow in coming years. Though there will always be setbacks, like North Carolina’s embarrassing vote to enshrine discrimination in its state constitution, the arc of this fight is indeed bending toward justice.
To Democratic Party chapters around the country, I say this: the time is right. Follow us and state loudly and clearly that you are the party of inclusion, where everyone is welcome. The tide of history demands it.
EVAN HURST is the director of social media for Truth Wins Out and a Memphis-based singer-songwriter.