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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Welcome Aboard!

NAACP-Baltimore Joins MME coalition but there are concerns.

By Steve Charing

The email message from Marylanders for Marriage Equality (MME) that announced on September 9 the addition of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the coalition was welcome and positive. My gut reaction is that there is now a focus on MME’s steering committee to work directly with the African-American community to help pass a marriage equality bill in 2012.

“The NAACP’s long history of working for equality and fairness for all will be instrumental in harnessing the supportive voices in the African-American community and throughout Maryland,” said Sultan Shakir, Campaign Manager for MME in the statement.

Tessa Hill-Alston, president of the Baltimore branch was quoted as saying, “We believe gay and lesbian couples have the same values as everyone else. They want to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love and build a loving, stable family. So it is only right that committed gay and lesbian couples be given the opportunity to marry as everyone else. We look forward to working with the coalition and lawmakers to pass a marriage equality bill that protects religious freedoms.”

The NAACP joins Senator Rich Madaleno, Delegate Luke Clippinger, Equality Maryland, Progressive Maryland, 1199 SEIU, ACLU-MD, Human Rights Campaign, and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as steering committee members for MME.

The news was received favorably by progressives all over. Blogger Michael Hulshof-Schmidt (TheSolipsisticMe) of the Daily Kos wrote: “Hill-Alston is the tonic for the hypocrisy and bigotry I witness from gays who are racist and misogynists, or blacks who are homophobic, or women who are anti-women and homophobic. I simply don’t understand how anyone that is or has been marginalized can’t feel an obligation to then stand up for others who are marginalized. I am hopeful and will look forward to other NAACP chapters stepping up to the plate and continuing to show great courage and leadership for civil rights for all.”

Yet religious African-Americans have resisted, if not rejected, the clarion calls by eminent civil rights leaders, such as Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, the late Coretta Scott King and many others as well as iconic institutions, such as the NAACP, who have argued for marriage equality. Those African-Americans who oppose such legislation use their religious convictions and/or their refusal to recognize marriage equality as a civil rights struggle as justification.

Even in a liberal city like Baltimore, mayoral candidates Frank M. Conaway and Otis Rolley and victorious District 12 Councilman Carl Stokes—all African-Americans—expressed opposition to same-sex marriage in a Gay Life survey. Other African-American candidates did so as well.

But it must be pointed out that while there is significant resistance to marriage equality among blacks, more recent polls indicate a modest increase in support. When the data surrounding the passage of Proposition 8 in California were ultimately analyzed, the initial finding of 70 percent support for the ballot initiative among African-Americans based on exit polling turned out to be overstated.

Further studies, however, indicate that in actuality 58 percent of California’s black population voted to prohibit same-sex marriage—a clear majority to be sure, but not an overwhelming one.

Many gays and lesbians were quick to blame blacks for the Prop. 8 debacle, but other factors, such as political ideology, religiosity and age played more of a role than race.

For marriage equality to pass the Maryland legislature in 2012 and to successfully defend it in a likely referendum, advocates will certainly need increased backing from African-Americans. With 30 percent of Maryland’s population being black—among the highest proportion of any state—the education process needs to be sweeping and intense. Clearly, the NAACP, with help from others, could provide such an effort.

That is why I enthusiastically welcomed the MME announcement. But upon visiting the Baltimore branch’s website , I was surprised by the fact that Tessa Hill-Alston’s name did not appear as president. She had been elected last November—fully 10 months ago—yet former president Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham’s president’s message is still displayed. And when doing a search for Tessa Hill-Alston, “no results were found.”

Obviously the website is in need of updating. Perhaps there are insufficient resources to make the technical changes. But if an organization is to exude confidence and credibility, this should be a priority in the Internet age.

Moreover, I attempted to reach Ms. Hill-Alston to ascertain how the branch will reach out to the African-American community to help sell marriage equality. She did not return the phone message I left with the receptionist.

I also emailed Kevin Nix, the media spokesperson for MME who released the announcement, requesting him to share details of the role the Baltimore branch of the NAACP will play in the coalition’s effort. I also wanted to know if the other NAACP branches in the state, particularly Prince George’s County, will be called upon. At press time, I had not heard back.

My hope is that the reluctance to discuss specifics with the media and, by extension, the community is more of a strategic calculation (and not a good one since the General Assembly is a mere four months away) rather than an absence of information, which is more discomforting because of the closeness of the session. What we don’t want is “window dressing”—organizations who sit on a board and who can help check the proverbial boxes but otherwise have no active function.

The members of MME’s coalition, including the NAACP, could be vital to secure passage of the marriage equality bill and stave off a referendum attempt if utilized properly. The community needs to hear more about those plans but right now, nobody is talking.


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