By Tim Funk, The Charlotte Observer
The case of the white baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple is headed to the Supreme Court – and it has re-ignited a passionate debate:
Are the people now fighting for LGBTQ rights following in the footsteps of the ’60s civil rights movement? Or are they hijacking it?
They’re hijacking it, says a group of conservative African-Americans that includes a civil rights pioneer from North Carolina. They say they’re offended at the comparison between what black people went through then and what LGBTQ people are going through now. And they say they believe that black people have been discriminated against because of their skin color, because of who they are – while gay, lesbian and transgender people want protection for a lifestyle and sexual behavior they have chosen for themselves.
That group – including some clergy and members of black organizations such as the Frederick Douglass Foundation – is publicly supporting Jack Phillips, the baker. It has even launched a campaign – “We Got Your Back, Jack” – to make its case before Dec. 5, when the high court plans to hear arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
One of the campaign’s images shows three separate water fountains, labeled “white,” “colored,” and “LGBT.” The first two are in stark black-and-white, recalling the racial segregation that was once the law in Southern states; the last is rainbow-colored. The headline says: “One of these never happened.”
Among the conservative group’s leaders: High Point’s Clarence Henderson, one of the black students who helped propel the civil rights movement in 1960 by sitting down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. He now heads the North Carolina chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation.
“There’s no comparison” between the struggles of African-Americans and LGBTQ persons, said Henderson. “There is a difference between what a human being is and what a human being does. … I lived this – walking down the street being called all kinds of names because of the color of my skin … How many gays or lesbians were lynched?”
Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, himself a civil rights pioneer, doesn’t think much of the conservative group’s arguments against LGBTQ claims.
“Gibberish,” he said. Other African-American leaders supporting the gay couple’s lawsuit against Phillips agree with him.
“Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who the group of people is facing it,” said Gantt, who won national headlines in 1963 when he became the first African-American student to enroll at Clemson after suing to end its whites-only policy. “Every time I hear arguments such as this, I recall the arguments when we were (pressing for rights in the 1960s). We heard ‘The time is not right’ and ‘We can have separate but equal.’”
Gantt also said that baker Phillips’ claim – that his refusal was based on religious objections to same-sex marriage – was reminiscent of what long-ago defenders of racial segregation argued: that some Bible passages supported a separation of the races.
“This same baker could say, ‘I read somewhere in the Bible that there’s nothing wrong with segregation. So I don’t want to sell to Harvey Gantt because he’s black,’ ” said Gantt, who became the first African-American elected mayor of Charlotte in 1983. “You shouldn’t be in business if you’re not going to serve everybody.”
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The group backing Phillips says its ranks include Alveda King, a conservative Christian activist who is a niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign and others supporting the couple who sued Phillips have been joined by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader close to King in the 1960s who was beaten by Alabama state troopers during a 1965 voting rights march in Selma.
In Charlotte, African-American pastors can be found on both sides of the case – and of the debate over whether or not LGBTQ persons are walking in the footsteps of King, Lewis and other black civil rights pioneers.
The Rev. Leon Threatt of the nondenominational Christian Faith Assembly of Charlotte said the LGBTQ community is engaged “in a fraudulent attempt to hijack a legitimate movement. … It is a tremendous insult to people of color or any ethnicity to compare behavior, sexual behavior, to identity.”
Threatt, whose elementary school in Union County was segregated until he reached fourth grade, added that “I didn’t have a choice about growing up in a segregated society.” But with lawsuits and other efforts by the LGBTQ community, he said, “society’s being forced to embrace a chosen lifestyle – a behavior that some people have chosen.”
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, senior pastor of Sacred Souls Community Church in Charlotte, said she, too, is offended – not by fellow LGBTQ persons pursuing equal rights but by “some clergy (who) would stand against the right for law-abiding citizens to benefit from the services and spaces offered to the entire general public.”
Rawls, whose church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ denomination, said the LGBTQ community is only doing what other groups – African-Americans, women, those with disabilities – have done before them: Fighting to “be recognized, heard, accepted and protected by the courts and government. No single group has a lock on freedom and justice.”
Parallels and differences
There is a long history of discrimination and violence against LGBTQ persons. One infamous example: In 1998, Matthew Shepard, then a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, died after being beaten and tortured – an act that later led Congress to enact hate crime legislation.
And the idea that being LGBTQ is a choice is widely disputed. Research suggests that people cannot usually change their sexual orientation. Some studies have found that being gay may have a genetic or biological basis.
Unlike African-Americans, LGBTQ persons were never enslaved in the United States. They were not denied the right to vote or made victims through the racial segregation of schools and neighborhoods.
But there are some parallels between their struggles.
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed state laws forbidding blacks and whites to marry. In 2015, the high court ruled it unconstitutional to keep same-sex couples from marrying.
And the argument that the government was trying to tell Phillips how to run his business echoes claims in 1964 that the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress forced businesses to serve black patrons.
Yet the Rev. Dean Nelson, a Baptist who chairs the Frederick Douglass Foundation in Washington, said there are other rights at stake in the Phillips case. As a Christian, Nelson said, Phillips was willing to bake cakes for the couple who sued him – just not a cake celebrating their same-sex wedding. Nelson said Phillips’ religious beliefs and his First Amendment right of artistic expression also cause him to say no to other cake requests – to promote Halloween, for example.
By claiming that their rights trump those of Phillips, Nelson argued, the LGBTQ community is pressing for “special rights” that are nowhere in the U.S. Constitution.
Nelson made another distinction. While the civil rights movement sprang from the black church, and those who worked in the struggle “felt their movement was a moral movement,” he said, many in the the African-American community then – and now – consider “that (LGBTQ) lifestyle immoral.”
There was at least one prominent LGBTQ person atop the civil rights movement, though.
Bayard Rustin, who was gay and African-American, was a leading strategist in the movement from the 1940s through the 1960s. Among other things, Rustin helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and helped educate Dr. King about Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violent resistance.
“The civil rights movement would never have happened without the contributions of Bayard Rustin – from the March on Washington and all across the board,” said Rodney Sadler, a professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian seminary in Charlotte. “And he was not closeted.”