This week, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore released an order that no same-sex marriage licenses be granted in the state. He was responding to a decision by a federal district court that declared unconstitutional Alabama’s ban on gay marriage. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state’s appeal of the ruling, the ban was legally overturned, and Alabama became the 37th state to allow marriage equality. That is, until Chief Justice Moore got involved. Now, the legality of same-sex marriage is in question, with some counties issuing marriage licenses, and some refusing.
Chief Justice Moore is a radical conservative, a strident evangelical Christian. Back in 2003, he made national headlines when he placed a massive granite block, on which were carved the Ten Commandments, inside the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery. He defied a federal court order to remove the religious monument, and was removed from office. Despite being disgraced, he was re-elected in 2012. He recently suggested at an evangelical Christian event that the First Amendment only protects Christians, as, he claims, that was the religion of the nation’s founders. On the TV program “Good Morning America” earlier this month, he speculated what might follow were same-sex marriages allowed:
“Do they stop with one man and one man, or one woman and one woman, or do they go to multiple marriages? Or do they go with marriages between men and their daughters, or women and their sons?”
Defying Moore’s monumental intolerance, loving couples still wed in Alabama this week. The first couple to marry in Montgomery were Tori Sisson and Shante Wolfe, both of whom have adopted the surname Wolfe-Sisson. When I asked Tori how it felt to be the first couple married there after the Alabama ban was overturned, she said, “It feels like we need a nap.”
Shante explained their insistence on marrying in Alabama: “We said that we wouldn’t go anywhere else, because we work here, we pay our taxes here, and we’re not going to go to another state just to come back and our union not be recognized. We’ve had several people tell us, ‘Well, just go to New York, or just go somewhere else.’ But no, we had faith that Alabama would move in a positive direction. And it has.” Tori has been involved with organizing this historic victory, as the Alabama field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay and lesbian rights organization.
Inequality, racism, segregation. These injustices persist with remarkable tenacity. I asked Montgomery-based attorney Bryan Stevenson about these courageous women. He said: “We have got to learn to respect the rights of people who are minorities. ... There was never a time when you could get the majority of people in the state to vote to end racial segregation.” Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which has just released a report called, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report documents close to 4,000 murders by lynching, which is 700 more than the previously accepted best estimates. Stevenson said, “At the beginning of the end of Reconstruction we see violence and threats and intimidation beginning to assert itself to sustain racial hierarchy. White supremacy wouldn’t succeed if it wasn’t enforced with violence and threat and terror.”
The systematic, mass violence, perpetrated with what Stevenson called a “carnival-like” atmosphere, was designed and sustained to terrorize the African-American population in the South. He explained, “The whole North and West is populated with African-Americans who fled to Detroit and Chicago and Cleveland and Los Angeles, not as people looking for opportunities, but as refugees from terror.”
Amidst the terror, courageous people rose up, and, during the civil-rights era, shifted the course of history. March 7 will mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 people, including a young John Lewis, who is now a distinguished member of Congress, began a march from Selma to Montgomery to challenge restrictive Jim Crow voting laws in Alabama. As the marchers approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were brutally attacked by the Alabama State Police. This was just two years after the racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, promised to enforce “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Intolerance persists, but people push back with a force more powerful, the force of movements, of grass-roots organizing. Rosa Parks and thousands with her did it in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott. As Stevenson told me: “This is a state where you sometimes have to stand when other people are sitting. It’s a place where you have to speak when other people are quiet ... this is a state that’s going to continually have to confront its resistance to complying with the Constitution and respecting the dignity and aspirations of all people.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.