The NAACP recently took what was for some in the organization a controversial step, when it endorsed same-sex marriage. That move has now led some local officers around the country to resign — including the group's most outspoken critic of gay marriage.
The NAACP board says it stands by its resolution calling for marriage equality. But as the nation's oldest civil rights group prepares for its national convention in July, some in the ranks say the resolution caught them by surprise, and that such an important decision deserved open debate.
When the NAACP leadership approved a resolution supporting marriage equality on May 21, the item wasn't even on the formal agenda. But Chairwoman Roslyn Brock says the national board of directors' conversation eventually turned to what they deemed a relevant civil rights issue.
"Clearly, this is an evolving conversation," Brock says. "And I believe that there are many in our organization who will still need to, or we hope will, evolve to a place where they can firmly stand with us. Some may never be able to come to terms with the resolution, and that's fine."
The resolution supports marriage equality as a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. It also commits the group to fight against any effort to write discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community into law. The head of the Indiana NAACP, Barbara Bolling, says that in her state, debate about the resolution started right away.
"Oh, sure," she says with a laugh. "Right after it was announced, kind of a little firestorm started."
Bolling said one of her branch presidents sent out an email strongly opposing the resolution.
"And we had a discussion," she says. "At the end of that discussion, he said that he would think about it. Ultimately, he made the decision to resign as president of that particular branch. It's an emotional thing, it really is."
A Critic Quits National Board
While some in the organization praised the stance, more resignations were in the works. One minister who led the NAACP chapter in Schenectady, N.Y., resigned. And so, too, has one of the organization's most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage, the Rev. Keith Ratliff Sr.
At the Iowa statehouse last year, Ratliff railed against an Iowa law that allows gay marriage.
"The deviant behavior is not the same thing as being denied the right to vote because of the color of one's skin," he said to applause. "The deviant behavior is not the same thing as being denied where one may sit on a bus."
Ratliff also said it was an insult for the gay community to try to align itself with the African-American struggle.
"Gay community: Stop hijacking the civil rights movement," he said.
In a recent interview with NPR, Ratliff said he would pray about whether to stay in the organization. This week, he resigned his post as a member of the NAACP national board, and as leader of the organization in Iowa and Nebraska.
"Certainly, there will be individuals who are obviously in support of this, and they will come along — and there will be new individuals who will join the NAACP," he says. "But historically, there is a faith base, a religious base to the NAACP. For those individuals in the religious community who feel the same way I do about this particular issue, they are already a little upset over the issue of what has taken place."
Ratliff says local leaders should have had more input. He predicts some NAACP members at local branches will be upset enough to write an emergency resolution, so the issue can be discussed more broadly at the NAACP's convention this summer.
Putting 'A Dent' In Perceptions
Brock says that marriage equality is not a new issue for the NAACP, even if its resolution did come soon after President Obama's statement of support for same-sex marriage. Brock says the group marched for gay rights in Washington in 1993; it also opposed California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.
As for the resolution, Brock says, "I think it does put a dent in the perception that the African-American community is in some way homophobic, and not willing to engage with this community."
Some inside the NAACP may think the resolution goes too far. But there are those who think it's just right — and still others who say it doesn't go far enough.
Recently at a bar on Chicago's South Side, a crowd of mostly black lesbians started to fill in the chairs lined up in front of a stage, getting ready for POW-WOW, a weekly poetry slam. Although some of the poets were current or past members of the NAACP, Misty DeBerry had never joined the civil rights group. But she says she was shocked and excited by the national board's decision to support marriage equality.
"Does the NAACP, in supporting same-sex marriage, really reflect what that feels like for me as a black woman right now? I don't know, maybe not," she says. "But am I appreciative that it's a public statement, and that maybe that will get things going a little bit? Absolutely, yeah."
Gays' Roles In Civil Rights
Long-time NAACP member and contributor C.C. Carter says that marriage equality is not high on her list of LGBT items the group could have addressed. But she calls the resolution huge and says it will help provide armor for some gays.
Carter, like Ratliff, is irritated when people compare the struggles of African-Americans to those of gays. But she says it's wrong for Ratliff to discount the roles of gays and lesbians in the civil rights movement. Carter points to activist Bayard Rustin, a gay African-American man who was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
"We were so on the bus, we were so at the forefront," Carter says. "Bayard Rustin was at that movement. But it became a choice between your race and your status as sexual orientation. That was a different fight. We were fighting for the rights to be, for the first thing you see about us — which is our color."
And while many here say the NAACP took a courageous first step, Anna DeShawn, 28, says she's waiting to see if the organization will address even more difficult topics when it comes to gays and lesbians.
"Like homophobia, and the black church, and homelessness," she says. "That, I will be truly impressed with, if they start tackling those types of issues, because they have the power to do so."
But any focus on gay issues for the NAACP is likely to still be same-sex marriage. For instance, in Maryland, a debate over a new law continues. But Brock says the group has many more issues to address as well, in the days and months ahead.