Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Pretty Good Day For Civil Rights

Amidst our daily dose of atrocities from Iraq and the double-barrel domestic gut shot of an increase in violent crime and a significant economic downturn, comes a ray of hope from some unexpected sources: Alabama and New Hampshire.

In very different ways, both states took a stand for civil rights and the equality of all citizens. One by looking backward, the other by looking forward.

Down south, Alabama's Republican Governor, Bob Riley signed a resolution that expressed "profound regret" for Alabama's role in slavery. The resolution apologized for slavery's wrongs as well as for the lingering effects that it continues to have on our culture. Said the Governor, "Slavery was evil and is a part of American history. I believe all Alabamians are proud of the tremendous progress we have made and continue to make." Alabama joins Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina as the only former Confederate states to make such an apology.

Meanwhile, up north, New Hampshire's Democratic Governor, John Lynch, signed into law a bill that legalises same sex civil unions. Said Lynch, "We in New Hampshire have had a long and proud tradition taking the lead and opposing discrimination. Today that tradition continues." The new law grants homosexual couples the same rights as married couples and will also honours same sex unions from other states that recognize them.

It would be easy to criticise Alabama for taking too long and New Hampshire for not going far enough. But the truth is, both are in the lead for trying to right the respective wrongs.

It's easy to take potshots at the south over the issue of slavery and some of it is deserved. But those who know their history know that there were many northerners who sympathised with slave owners, just as there were southern abolitionists. Alabama is to be commended for this historic step. Hopefully it will pave the way for apologies from other southern states, as well as from northern states many of which have legalised slavery in their history and citizens who helped facilitated the slave trade.

Of equal import is the need for the U.S. federal government to apologize for Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, a section that essentially sanctioned slavery. It was here that the formula for determining congressional representation and tax burden was decided by, "adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

Yes, non-whites were considered 3/5 of a white person. An apology is both justified and necessary.

The issue of gay marriage and legal rights for homosexuals is the American civil rights issue of the 21st century. To date Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, California and Washington recognise same sex civil unions. Oregon will join that list next year. Hawaii extends some spousal rights to same-sex couples and cohabiting heterosexual pairs, but only Massachusetts recognises gay marriage. Of the ten states that have recognised some form of same sex union, thus far, only New Hampshire has done so without any legal action pending.

The Civil War ended one hundred and forty seven years ago and the wounds of slavery are still evident. Let's hope that in another hundred and forty seven years they will have finally healed over. Let us also hope that in one hundred and forty years the idea of gay civil rights is so ingrained in our national psyche that those looking back will wonder why we ever needed to debate it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apologies are absolutely in order, even if they are symbolic. What about non-symbolic actions.... Reparations? Not so sure about that. I want everyone who was owed 40 acres and a mule to have that, but beyond that deal, I think probably not. Reckon I've a limited imagination as far as that goes. As for the gay rights, I think the more we see that western civilization is not crumbling due to love between two same sex persons, the more states will succumb (no pun intended) to the inevitable.

10:18 PM  

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