Julian Bond, a great champion of civil rights, passed away this past weekend. In honor of his memory, we would like to share the text of his acceptance speech from the 2005 Equality Virginia Dinner when we presented him with the Commonwealth Award.
I am more than honored to receive this award, and want to express my thanks to all responsible for it. I believe it represents a common acknowledgement that denial of rights to anyone is wrong, and that struggles for rights are indivisible.
I represent an organization that has fought for justice for all for nearly 100 years, and while we’ve won many victories, we know – you know – there are other battles yet to be waged and won.
At the NAACP, we were proud to have opposed the federal marriage amendment and its wrong-headed state versions, and we oppose efforts to write bigotry into Virginia’s constitution too.
I always though Virginia was for lovers, not against them. That’s why I am so thankful for the case Loving v. Virginia. A married couple – Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman – won a 1967 ruling from the United States Supreme Court that Virginia’s miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. That case enabled me to get married in Virginia. That case recognized marriage as one of the inviolable personal rights pursuant to happiness.
That’s why when I am asked, “Are Gay Rights Civil Rights?” my answer is always, “Of course they are.”
“Civil rights” are positive legal prerogatives – the right to equal treatment before the law. These are rights shared by all – there is no one in the United States who does not – or should not – share in these rights.
Gay and lesbian rights are not “special rights” in any way. It isn’t “special” to be free from discrimination – it is an ordinary, universal entitlement of citizenship. The right not to be discriminated against is a common-place claim we all expect to enjoy under our laws and our founding document, the Constitution. That many had to struggle to gain these rights makes them precious – it does not make them special, and it does not reserve them only for me or restrict them from others.
When others gain these rights, my rights are not reduced in any way. Luckily, “civil rights” are a win/win game; the more civil rights are won by others, the stronger the army defending my rights becomes. My rights are not diluted when my neighbor enjoys protection from the law – he or she becomes my ally in defending the rights we all share.
For some, comparisons between the African-American civil rights movement and the movement for gay and lesbian rights seem to diminish the long black historical struggle with all its suffering, sacrifices and endless toil. However, people of color ought to be flattered that our movement has provided so much inspiration for others, that it has been so widely imitated, and that our tactics, methods, heroines and heroes, even our songs, have been appropriated by or served as models for others.
No parallel between movements for rights is exact. African-Americans are the only Americans who were enslaved for more than two centuries, and people of color carry the badge of who we are on our faces. But we are far from the only people suffering discrimination – sadly, so do many others. They deserve the law’s protections and civil rights, too.
Sexual disposition parallels race – I was born black and had no choice. I couldn’t and wouldn’t change it if I could. Like race, our sexuality isn’t a preference – it is immutable, unchangeable, and the Constitution protects us all against prejudices and discrimination based on immutable differences.
Those whose bigotry is Bible-based selectively ignore Biblical injunctions to execute people who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) and to crack down on those who get haircuts (Leviticus 19:27) or who wear clothes with more than one kind of thread (Leviticus 19:19).
Recently, they’ve even ignored the sanctity of marriage – just ask Michael Schiavo.
Many gays and lesbians worked side by side with me in the ‘60s civil rights movement. Am I to now tell them “thanks” for risking life and limb helping me win my rights – but they are excluded because of a condition of their birth? That they cannot share now in the victories they helped to win? That having accepted and embraced them as partners in a common struggle, I can now turn my back on them and deny them the rights they helped me win, that I enjoy because of them?
Not a chance.
In 1965, those of us who worked in the civil rights movement were buoyed by a radio address given by Lyndon Johnson.
His words speak to us today. He said then:
“It is difficult to fight for freedom. But I also know how difficult it can be to bend long years of habit and custom to grant it. There is no room for injustice anywhere in the American mansion. But there is always room for understanding those who see the old ways crumbling. And to them today I say simply this: It must come. It is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders too. It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it.”
The lessons of the civil rights movement of yesterday – and the on-going civil rights movement of today – is that sometimes the simplest of ordinary acts – taking a seat on a bus or a lunch counter, registering to vote, applying for a marriage license – can have extraordinary ramifications. It can change our world, change the way we act and think.
Thank you again for this honor. Let us all leave here determined to fight on until all enjoy the blessings of liberty and justice. We can change the world. It will come.
April 2, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Julian Bond