The second half of the twentieth century will be remembered as the time in our nation’s history when a gross mistake made by our Founding Fathers in the Constitution finally was rectified. The Constitution institutionalized the notion that African-Americans were not to be afforded all the rights of Americans. While the Civil War and the 14th and 16th Amendments removed the legal barriers, advances in civil rights for African Americans did not take root for one hundred years after those historical events. This is far too long a span of time for a nation that prides itself on equal rights for all.
Many factors contributed to the change in the majority’s attitude and the attainment of rights for African Americans over the years. During World War II, partially at the prodding of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, one barrier was slowly broken. The war effort needed pilots, bombardiers, and navigators for combat in Europe and the Pacific. To help address this need, the 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps was formed. These aviators, commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen, were the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military. While they served with skill, bravery, and distinction, the attitude in the military, like the attitude among civilians, was resistant to change, and that change took a long time to implement. “Separate but equal” training and operational facilities were built for the Airmen, and in those rare instances where the African-American aviators worked alongside their white counterparts, there was still segregation in facilities, housing, and other everyday life activities. Even after the war, not a single one of the Tuskegee Airmen was hired as a pilot by the commercial airlines. At the time, there was much consternation among the airmen about the “separate but equal” facilities, but some of the aviators, as well as liberal-minded politicians, considered that a necessary evil toward the greater goal of full equality for African-Americans in the military.
Of course, the struggle for rights in the military was just a microcosm for the larger struggle. The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 set the stage for full integration, but it took several generations for effective implementation. (One wonders how today’s activist Supreme Court would rule on a similar manner). Despite the advances of Dr. King, the sacrifices of Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner and others, there are still events that show the racial divide has narrowed but is not closed.
Nevertheless, much progress has been made in the last half-century for African-Americans’ rights. The election of Barack Obama is not the culmination of that struggle, but rather the next chapter in an ongoing initiative to ensure equal rights for African-Americans and Americans overall.
Unfortunately, the end of the twentieth century was also marked by events that diminished the rights of another group of Americans: gays and lesbians. While discrimination and violence against homosexuals have been with us even before the days of J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy, it was President Clinton who signed into law two bills that institutionalized discrimination and took away rights from millions of American. In 1993, he approved the featherbrained policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) in the military, and in 1996 approved the Republican wedge issue by signing the equally ridiculously-named “Defense of Marriage Act”, which defined marriage at the Federal level as a union between a man and a woman.
As in the case of the Tuskegee Airmen and African-Americans serving alongside Caucasians, there are those who decry the concept of homosexuals serving side-by-side with heterosexuals in the military. And like the case of the Tuskegee Airmen, gays and lesbians have served their country with distinction and honor. To paraphrase World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, “There are no homophobes in foxholes.” In today’s military, which is stretched thin by two unnecessary wars, the policy of not allowing gays and lesbians to serve their country is not just wrong, it is also counterproductive and harmful to the war effort. Yet, President Obama’s campaign promise to repeal DADT is moving at a pace that would make a snail seem like a Lamborghini in comparison.
Elimination of the “Defense of Marriage Act” is also moving at a slow pace. Last year, 91 congressmen signed on to an effort to repeal this inappropriate legislation. More recently, a District Court judge in Boston ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional – he made the right decision for the wrong reason. The judge’s rationale was that marriage is a state’s rights issue – the same rationale that was used to perpetuate segregation before the Brown decision. What he should have ruled is that DOMA is unconstitutional because it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The “Separate but Equal” concept of civil unions is as wrong and ineffective as “separate but equal” schools were for African-Americans.
The struggle for African-American civil rights was a long, often violent one – and it is by no means over. By comparison, the struggle for gay and lesbian rights is just starting. As we approach America’s bicenquinquagenary, let’s ensure that equal rights are just that – equal for all Americans – black, brown, and white; gay, straight, and transgender; Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and atheist; and any other variant of the human condition that exists. Instead of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, ask yourself if America is meant to institutionalize second class citizenship and deny rights to anyone, and tell your elected officials to remove any and all legal barriers that deny you and your neighbors full and equal rights. It shouldn’t take another 100 years for America to realize its full potential.