The issue of marriage equality is an important one, and one that is still primarily debated and regulated on the state level. Unless the day arrives when the U.S. Supreme Court declares, all out, that gays have equal marriage rights to straights, the battleground for equality and dignity will remain in the statehouses of the nation.
First, I do not intend to mislead my readers. My position on gay marriage is clear. I believe that if two adult human beings want to abide together, pledge mutual lifelong love and loyalty and create a family, then the state ought to support them in doing so. It’s a tough, mean world out there, and no one ought to go it alone. People need to join together, and the family is the first and foremost institution for such a practice. We are social beings and need family. I do not mean this as a slight to single people, but on the whole, two are better than one, whether it is in the quest to make a living, buy a house, or find a pair of lost keys in the house.
New Jersey has a long and, frankly, appalling history in the fight for equality and justice. While New Jerseyans tend to think of themselves as Northerners, as Progressives, the political history of the state is a rather conservative – almost a Southern – one. New Jersey had a slave population well up to the Civil War. New Jersey never voted for Lincoln. New Jersey wasn’t happy with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which established “equal protection of the laws” as national policy. New Jersey did not allow women to vote in most elections before the U.S. Constitution was changed in 1920. New Jersey had a prominent Ku Klux Klan movement in the 20’s, and a menacing Nazi Party in the 1930’s. Does all of this surprise you? It should.
Well, the Garden State continues to carry on its regressive tradition of embracing the wrong side of history. Though the year is not two months old, conservative legislators in Trenton have already proposed a state Constitutional amendment (ACR 11) barring legal gay marriage. It’s embarrassing, it’s shameful, but it is not unprecedented.
We last saw a similar debate, filled with prejudice and detestable declarations, in 1913. This was a tough year for New Jersey. Scenarios that any present-day resident would find eerily familiar plagued the state. Our cities were spiraling out of control due to growing poverty and crime. Urban schools were breaking down under the pressure of increased enrollment and deteriorating conditions. Teachers, particularly in Newark, were restive and would eventually strike for higher wages and job security. Corruption ruled the day in Trenton and the municipalities, defying Woodrow Wilson, the state’s progressive governor. Wilson would soon move on to a higher office, of course, but the graft would remain.
It was in this recognizable economic and political climate that the Legislature took up the debate on marriage equality. But this earlier struggle was not over homosexuality, it concerned race. In February of 1913 the New Jersey State legislature took up a bill that would ban interracial marriage.
To be fair, this was not just a state issue. Between 1910 and 1914 several states, including Iowa and Wyoming, considered such legislation. Congress openly debated amending the U.S. Constitution to ban interracial matrimony, as well as making such contracts a felony in Washington, D.C. In statehouses and even on the floor of Congress itself, politicians railed against the idea of whites and blacks joining together in matrimony. One prominent Georgia Congressman, Seaborn Roddenberry, even compared interracial marriage to a form of white slavery:
“Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government. It is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania…Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra-demoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy…”
Back in New Jersey, the proposed bill caused an uproar amongst the state’s religious and black leaders. One by one, key leaders spoke up, along with their congregations, on the issue. Heading the effort to defeat the bill was Presbyterian Rev. E.F. Eggleston. Speaking at one Newark protest meeting in February of 1913, he stated:
“It’s a snake bill. All the good people of this state are with us. If this proposed bill were against the Chinese, I would be opposed to it.”
Echoing him was Reverend Frederick H. Butler of Montclair, one of Essex County’s most prominent African-American leaders:
“There are bad classes among the white people, just as much as among us. The Negro woman does her part. She is our mother, and she must be protected. If we could live better, we would not have this special class legislation thrust at us.”
Unlike in the South, African-Americans had some voting power in New Jersey, though they too experienced discrimination daily and at the polls. But New Jersey’s small black minority (larger numbers would not settle in the state until the Great Migration of the 1920’s), joined with its religious allies, and eventually succeeded and defeated efforts in the Legislature to bar interracial marriage.
Other states would continue to ban, and even punish, interracial marriage until the U.S. Supreme Court labeled the practice unconstitutional in the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia.
New Jersey’s residents need to recognize the authentic parallels between the two discriminatory movements. We need to learn from our history and reject hatred. Decent people must, in the words of songwriter Sarah Bareilles, speak up and BE BRAVE. We must honor those who seek to create households of love, honor, responsibility and family.
Stand up for family values. Stand up for honorable people. Defeat ACR 11 this year!