A few hours after President Barack Obama included gays in his heartfelt speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the in a grand ballroom in New York City Thursday night, Rev. Eric Lee, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - the national civil rights group founded by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - stood on the back porch of a house in Hollywood talking about how SCLC is trying to fire him over his righteous stance on marriage equality for same sex couples.
SCLC/LA's Rev. Eric Lee Remains Firm in Gay Marriage Stance
Obama at the NAACP convention
It was not exactly an exquisite irony. After months of withering criticism (for his Justice Department brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act, for example) for failing to be a "fierce advocate" for LGBT rights (as he'd promised, Obama took what some might consider a "bold" move by including discrimination against gays in a speech to an African American civil rights organization that has no national gay rights policy.
NAACP chair Julian Bond may personally see marriage equality as a civil right issue (as he told the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart) but as NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous told CNN, the organization as a whole is engaged in a "deeply held, intense debate" over gay marriage.
Obama told the NAACP:
"But make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.
On the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination cannot stand -- not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America. That's what the NAACP stands for. That's what the NAACP will continue to fight for as long as it takes."
There was a smattering of applause when he mentioned gays - probably lead by (straight) NAACP California president Alice Huffman, who was intensely attacked for her ardent support of California's two marriage equality bills and now serves as co-chair with Bond of the organization's new LGBT Equality Task Force, a partnership of NAACP and the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC). According to blogger Rod McCullom, NBJC Deputy Director Jason W. Bartlett addressed the NAACP's Board of Governors but the board's approval of the Task Force's mission statement (which included support for marriage equality) was tabled.
Gays weren't the only ones who noticed the disconnection between advocates and institutions that stand for equality and justice such as Obama and NAACP and the equal justice issue of marriage equality. In a piece for the Huffington Post, blogger Raymond Leon Roker wrote:
"As state after state pushes forward for marriage equality, why should the NAACP act like some backwater province of old ideologies? In an era where the very relevance of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seems to be in question, why not show it can -- and should -- still lead the social justice conversation?.... The strict covenants of the black church are of little interest and its antiquated positions -- from rap to sex to HIV -- seem quaint to the Obama Generation. One-hundred years ago the NAACP was founded on a radical principle of equality that was far ahead of its time. Today, the group has a chance to do the right thing again."
SCLC's Eric Lee in hot water
SCLC/LA's Rev. Eric Lee has repeatedly made the same point - though his pronouncements have lead to a confrontation with the national SCLC that garnered the attention of the New York Times" and the local black community.
At a racially mixed, gay and straight event Thursday night to promote Lee's new book - "Proposition 8: The California Divide" - Rick Jacobs, founder of the online California progressive organizing group Courage Campaign, introduced Lee as "someone who's changing this country, this state."
Jacobs and Lee were a constant team following the passage of Prop 8 - protesting outside the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles and at a massive rally near City Hall. Before the election, Lee stood with the Jordan/Rustin Coalition in opposing the initiative. During that time, Lee told me that he had personally grown into his current support for marriage equality after he fully embraced the fundamental belief that "any time you deny one group of people the same right that other groups have, that is a clear violation of civil rights." But most media coverage of Lee's participation before and after the passage of Prop 8 was local, online and in the LGBT press.
Lee - the preacher who says he's deeply inspired by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - opened his remarks at the event saying he believes "the wings of justice are blowing toward equality for all people."
Then he outlined the events that lead to his job apparently being in jeopardy. Last April he attended a SCLC board meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, where he expressed his support for marriage equality. He was told that SCLC held a "neutral" position on the issue. On May 27, he received an email from SCLC's General Counsel telling him to come immediately to Atlanta to show cause why they shouldn't take action and either suspend or remove him because he'd taken a position on a national issue without the express authorization from the national board. Lee emailed back that he didn't have the resources to take another long distance trip so quickly and would be happy to do a teleconference to explain his support for marriage equality in California. And, Lee added, if national SCLC's position is one of neutrality, "any position I take is neither in opposition or in favor."
Besides, Lee said, "marriage is a civil institution" noting that the 50% of heterosexual marriages, including among "good Christians," end in divorce. And who determines the custody of children and the disposition of property - the church of the state? - he asked rhetorically as the audience roared with laughter.
The General Counsel apparently responded with two letters, which Lee characterized as "threatening."
Support for Lee
Support for Lee was immediate, including a letter to SCLC from L.A. City Council president Eric Garcetti. Lee has considerably increased the visibility and activity of the local SCLC in his two-year tenure.
Reggie Byron Jones-Sawyer, who is the secretary of the California Democratic Party and chair of the board of SCLC's L.A. chapter, sent a letter to the national board saying the LA board unanimously supported Lee and given the autonomous chapter structure of the organization, it was their prerogative to hire and fire him.
Additionally, Jones-Sawyer told me, "there is nothing that precludes us from taking a stand" on marriage equality. He asked the national board to "show cause" and provide documentation proving that Lee had violated any of organization's rules or procedures. Their deadline has since passed and Lee has not yet been fired, Jones-Sawyer said.
Lee said he is constantly asked by members of the African American community why he has taken up this issue - that it is an "inappropriate priority" given such critical issues as unemployment and police misconduct. But he replies that "this is an issue of justice" and given the African American history of slavery and legal discrimination, African Americans "have the obligation and moral responsibility to speak out against injustice wherever it exists."
This is the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lee said, and while he acknowledged the community is "troubled" by the issue, he is at the same time "hopeful that the African American community will return to what our burden and our mantle is in this country - to stand with the oppressed so we can have justice." Marriage equality, he said, "is a justice issue and we will not be turned back from that.....I feel really deep in my soul about this."
He said that it is time to tell SCLC - and the NAACP - "to stop being neutral and take a position on marriage equality right now." The train has left the station, he said, and "they need to jump on this train of justice."
Lee said he has been under a "huge attack" for his stance. But he noted that the national group apparently did not have a problem with it until Jones-Sawyer told them on June 4, "We're OK with it and if you have an issue, take it up with me."
Danny Bakewell on the attacks
Longtime activist Danny Bakewell, SCLC/LA board member and publisher of the influential Black newspaper the Sentinel, told the audience that local African American organizations and churches have refused to invite Lee to speak - an economic hardship for Lee and his family since those speaking fees help supplement his non-profit salary.
"He has been beaten up and challenged, but he has been vigilant about everyone being entitled to love the one they love," Bakewell said. Lee's stance "has dried up a lot of his personal income. The churches have said, 'I'm not inviting you.' But he has never, ever blinked....At the end of the day, right is right. Martin Luther King said injustice to one is injustice to everyone."
Bakewell has also taken hits for supporting Lee in the Sentinel, Jacobs told me.
SCLC General Counsel personally supports Lee
During his remarks, Lee also revealed that SCLC's General Counsel did not support the strong-arm tactics the organization is taking in "coming after" Lee. He quoted Dexter M. Wimbish as saying, "I told them this is not the right course but they didn't take my advice."
I called Wimbish late Friday to confirm Lee's remarks about him and ask what action SCLC was going to take regarding Lee.
At first, Wimbish said, "no comment" and referred me to the national headquarters. I persisted, noting that I had covered Lee extensively for Frontiers in LA, the primary LGBT publication in Los Angeles, and "no comment" would probably not reflect well on him or the renowned civil rights organization.
Wimbish hesitated. "I've been involved in fighting for gay rights all through my legal career," he said, pointing to his work at the Center for Democratic Renewal which has a history of advocating for national hate crime legislation. "Google me to ascertain my positions."
Wimbish said he thought the letter to Lee had been misunderstood. "The letter did not pertain to his stance on marriage equality, per se," Wimbish said. "The issue is that the organization has not taken a stance on the issue. There is no official policy. Some chapters have one stand, others have another. He was asked to come before the board to explain why he decided to take a position since the organization's stance is neutral. That's why we sent the letter. He was not being threatened with any action. It was a first step - to show cause why action should not be taken."
When I suggested that sounded like a threat, Wimbish explained that SCLC has a "trademark right" to the name Southern Christian Leadership Conference and therefore it has the "ability ultimately to determine how that name is used" in association with anyone who serves in any position in the organization.
SCLC's structure has chapters, most of which - unlike the LA chapter - are operated by volunteers. So while LA may be able to hire people, it still falls under the prevue of the national organization that "still owns the name and all the rights associated with the trademark. So this issue was never about employment."
The show cause letter was asking "why have you taken a stance on a national issue that the nation organ doesn't have stance on?"
The NAACP holds the same position and is going through the same thing as SCLC, Wimbish said. "We're in an environment where the issue has to be debated and at some point in time, a position will be taken. The gay rights issue is an important issue," Wimbish said, noting that SCLC - an organization "committed to equality and justice" - supports the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act and has joined coalitions opposing antigay initiatives.
Wimbish wouldn't say whether he advised the group not to go after Lee. "I understood his position," Wimbish said. "And as yet, no action has been taken." He would not say if any would be in the future.
Underscoring that he was expressing his personal opinion, Wimbish wondered if, in retrospect, Lee and the LA chapter couldn't have tried a "more prudent approach" - having a conversation with the national office because marriage equality is not just an issue of discrimination in California but it "rises to a national issue." Why didn't "an alarm go off" where Lee might "stop and talk" about why he advocated the issue?
I noted that some people questioned why an organization dedicated to equality and justice could take a "neutral" position on discrimination against same sex couples.
"I personally understand that position," Wimbish said. "I imagine that in the 1960s the same argument was made about why some organizations were 'neutral' about segregation, for instance. But this organization is not at a point where it will take a public position on the issue. It just means that inside the organization and outside, we have work to do. This is Dr. King's organization and personally, I would hope that we can come together to dialogue and address those issues." In the end, he said, "we all would be better off as a country, not just as an organization."
Wimbish noted that before he got involved in the civil rights movement 20 years ago, he didn't know any gay or lesbian people. But over the years, he has developed friendships and now "I understand where they are coming from and their passion for equality and justice."
Wimbish noted that President Obama is "opening up" a lot of people's eyes. And especially at this moment in time, he said, it is important to build a "unified coalition" to battle for equality and justice for all. "It is the time and age when organizations fighting and battling amongst themselves is coming to an end," a time when there is an opportunity to "form a really diverse coalition and really make Dr. King's dream into a true reality."