One of the best outcomes of Obama's endorsement of gay marriage has been the inspiration and courage it has given a lot of African-American church goers to likewise vocalize their support. The day of the announcement, my Facebook news feed was full of black Christians agreeing with the President and vowing to support him. But even as liberal as my social network is, I also saw a few black diehard opponents of same sex marriage saying they would vote for Romney or stay home to spite Obama.
I don't fear these threats. As vindictive as they are, I'm skeptical they will dial back progress by handing the election to Mitt Romney.
Of course, African-American opposition to gay rights is still strong. According to Pew Research Center, in April, 49 percent of black voters said they opposed gay marriage. And I agree that the margins of victory for the winner in this election could very well be narrow.
May 9, 2012 - San Francisco, CA, USA - Kelly Rivera Hart of San Francisco, California, adds his thoughts to a ''thank you'' card for President Obama posted at the intersection of Castro and 18th Streets in San Francisco on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Obama spoke earlier in the day of his personal beliefs on gay marriage. (Credit Image: © Kristopher Skinner/Contra Costa Times/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com)
But as several commentators have pointed out, Obama couldn't win the votes of people most opposed to gay rights anyway -- regardless of his position on gay marriage. He already offended them by repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And most of these gay rights opponents are Republicans who simply would never vote for him.
Still, there's a bigger reason I don't fear these threats. Obama has six months of campaigning ahead and black opposition to gay rights is not immutable. If he plans his campaign wisely, he will seize the opportunity to influence this debate and shore up his support among those who might otherwise oppose him. In the process, he could transform public perception of this issue. It's called leadership and it's an opportunity he couldn't have earned without speaking up.
Due to the groundwork already laid by black LGBT organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), leading black America to greater acceptance of equal rights is possible for Obama. NBJC's executive director, Sharon Lettman Hicks -- a straight African-American Christian woman -- has been travelling the country organizing and lobbying for years. Such organizing has already helped shift African-American opinion. According to the Pew Center, black opposition to gay marriage has dropped 18 percent since 2004.
To leverage this momentum,Obama could piggyback on the work that a coalition of black pastors in North Carolina did to oppose Amendment One. Fifteen of them took out an ad against the amendment. The president could appoint some of those pastors to his campaign and have them organize a road show targeting black voters in swing states. People like North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber have already developed messaging and framing targeting black Christians. Marrying those messages with Obama's platform could be powerful.
With so many ordinary African-Americans expressing support for the President's historic endorsement, millions who never had the courage to speak out for equal rights, now can. A smart campaigner would also use that fundamental shift to his or her advantage.
Obama had the courage to do what should have been done 50 years ago, when civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was being marginalized by some for being gay. Rustin was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the march where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most recognized speech "I Have a Dream." But throughout his career, he encountered same race bigots who wanted to sideline and silence him, belittling his sacrifices and contributions to the black freedom struggle. Without his work, the black churches who today oppose gay rights might still be targeted with bombs and arson.
Obama might be able to win this election without campaigning on this issue. But we can certainly expect that Republican operatives will do their best to exploit any African-American disaffection. And even if Republicans don't, it would be real shame for Obama to squander a rare opportunity to give back a portion of the freedom that Rustin and countless other nameless, faceless LGBT black people gave to him.
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