It was a historic, bold move that took the country by surprise. On May 19, the 103-year old NAACP board voted to support marriage equality.
“Civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law. The NAACP’s support for marriage equality is deeply rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and equal protection of all people,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.
The NAACP, an organization steeped in the black church, has fought against state and federal efforts to ban gay marriage rights—including opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop. 8 in California and leading the fight against North Carolina’s Amendment 1.
But this has been an ‘evolution’ for the NAACP. In 2004, when openly gay Assemblymember Mark Leno and Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors were advocating for Leno’s marriage equality bill, Alice Huffman, President of the NAACP’s California Chapter, faced strong opposition for her support.
“EQCA first met with Alice Huffman back in 2004, and she immediately agreed to take what was, at the time, a very gutsy position and urged the California NAACP to take a position in support of marriage equality. And after months of hard work and conversations, she succeeded,” Kors recalls. “The following year she joined me at the judiciary committee hearing as a lead witness testifying in support of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act authored by Mark Leno. She spoke so passionately about why this issue was a civil rights issue and how the NAACP was proud to stand with the LGBT community. She then joined us lobbying and finally on the floor of the assembly to make sure we got the votes we needed to pass the bill.
“This position was not met with universal praise from NAACP members, and some quit in protest,” Kors says. “EQCA and other organizations urged our members to join NAACP and many did—but there was still a loss of members for NAACP. Alice never wavered and eight years later was there urging the national NAACP to follow California’s lead. She is a true hero in the fight for civil rights and equality for all. Standing united with our coalition partners is key not just to our success in the fight for LBGT equality but also essential to creating a just society.”
Leno remembers Huffman’s commitment, too. “Alice was ahead of the curve. I remember her comments before any number of legislative committee hearings when she said, ‘People sometimes ask me why, as head of the California Chapter of the NAACP, am I here to speak in support of equal marriage rights?’ And she said, ‘My answer is, the mission of the NAACP is to fight for civil rights, and this is a civil rights issue.’
“She was bold. She was unequivocal. She was forceful and she’s now proven to be a visionary,” Leno says. “And I did encourage the LGBT community to make a contribution to help make up for some of the loss of support she might experience due to her leadership. I don’t know if it actualized. But now, so many years later, not only is the African-American president of the United States in support of Alice’s earlier position—but now the national NAACP. So I’m very proud of the bold and brilliant decision of the national organization.
“And I also want to make mention of the leadership of San Francisco’s Rev. Amos Brown, who’s been the pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco for the past 40 years,” Leno says of the head of that city’s chapter who stood with Martin Luther King Jr. “I also served with him on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a couple of years, and he has been a longtime supporter of our community—argued and debated publicly against Proposition 8—and was very excited to phone me and let me know the results of their actions after they took them.”
Leno says the coalition work continues. The NAACP California Chapter is co-sponsoring a bill Leno’s authoring that would redefine the crime of simple possession of any drug to be a misdemeanor not a felony.