“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
That’s for Marion Barry, who seems to need the reminder.
The former mayor and current city councilman of Washington, D.C., is a longtime supporter of gay rights. So observers were stunned last week when a bill committing the city to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere passed the council on a vote of 12-1.
The “one” was Barry.
Wait, it gets worse. Barry said his position hasn’t changed but warned that the council needs to move slowly on this issue. “All hell is going to break loose,” Barry said. “We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this.” Indeed, after the vote, a group of black ministers reportedly “stormed” the hallway outside the council chambers, vowing political reprisals.
The Washington Post quotes Barry as saying he voted as he did because “I am representing my constituents.” He reminded reporters that “98 percent of my constituents are black, and we don’t have but a handful of openly gay residents.”
That’s a lot of words to say what he could have said in three: I punked out.
There’s something to be said for representing one’s constituents. But there is more to be said for leading them. Barry’s failure to understand the difference is galling in light of the fact that he was once a leader in the civil rights movement.
One wonders how differently that movement might have turned out had white people like Clifford Durr, Viola Liuzzo, Ralph McGill, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and Lyndon Johnson allowed themselves to be cowed by the angry voices of white men and women saying, “All hell is going to break loose.” For that matter, how much longer might the long night of slavery have lasted had white people like Elijah Lovejoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott and Thaddeus Stevens bowed to the fact that the white community was “just adamant” against freedom.
One wonders, too, whether those black ministers in the hall see their mirror image in generations of white ministers who have used the Bible to condone the evil of slavery (“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters.”) and the fiction of African-American inferiority (the “curse” of Ham).
At day’s end, though, the great tragedy here is neither historical amnesia nor moral cowardice. No, the tragedy is embodied in Barry’s description of African-Americans as a people for whom open homosexuality is rare. That description is, unfortunately, too accurate — not simply for black Washington, but for black America. We are a socially conservative people. And our conservatism is, quite literally, killing us.
It is no coincidence the community that has yet to make a safe place for its gay members to be who they are openly, the community that still regards gay as a dirty secret not to be spoken in open company, the community where people still think gay “can’t happen in my family,” is also the community that accounts for half of all AIDS diagnoses in this country, the community that has lost 211,000 brothers and sisters to this disease, the community where marriages keep popping like balloons from the discovery that the husband is gay.
The measure of a man, said Dr. King, is where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Marion Barry should take note. We all should.
Where sexuality is concerned, African-America lives by lies. We are long overdue to wake up, grow up and speak up, to tell the truth openly and without fear. We are dying in this silence.
And for what it’s worth, Martin’s measurement still applies.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.