By Rob Burgess
— A historic photo seared into my brain at an early age came back to me this week. It was taken May 28, 1963, in Jackson, Miss., by photographer Fred Blackwell of The Jackson Daily News.
“Those are the bravest people I’ve ever seen in my life,” Blackwell told The Associated Press on June 2, 2013. “What they went through ... pictures don’t tell the story.”
In the right-hand side of the frame are seated three attempted customers of the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter: John Salter, white Tougaloo College professor; Joan Trumpauer, white TC student; and Anne Moody, black TC student. Behind them stand dozens of pale onlookers, mostly students at nearby Central High School. On Monday, I located Moody’s 1968 autobiography “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” in which she painted the ugly scene.
“The mob started smearing us with ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies, and everything on the counter,” Moody wrote. “Soon Joan and I were joined by John, but the moment he sat down he was hit on the jaw with what appeared to be brass knuckles. Blood gushed from his face and someone threw salt into the open wound.”
This was one of a series of demonstrations against Jim Crow laws that allowed such discrimination. Scenes of passive protest matching the sit-ins of a half-century ago are virtually guaranteed if any of a building cadre of anti-gay “Religious Freedom” laws ever becomes codified.
On Feb. 11, House Bill 2453 passed the Kansas House of Representatives 72-49, and has since been referred to the Kansas Senate Committee on Judiciary.
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law,” begins the bill, “no individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender: provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement; or solemnize [or treat as valid] any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.”
Fortunately, the following day Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, publicly issued it the kiss of death, taking “the unusual step ... of issuing a statement saying the bill ... didn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans in her chamber,” reported The Kansas City Star’s Brad Cooper Feb. 13. With that, Kansas’ prospects of becoming the first state in the union to pass such a direct frontal assault faded.
And Feb. 18, sister legislation in three states was massacred by lawmakers in Tennessee (withdrawn); South Dakota (rejected); and Maine (rejected). Colorado’s version died on the vine the same month. All eyes turned to Arizona’s identical Senate Bill 1062.
“Ending a day that cast a glaring national spotlight on Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a bill … that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds,” reported The New York Times’ Fernanda Santos Feb. 26.
Despite this, the war looks far from over. Similar statehouse and ballot-box fights are playing out in many other states, including: Ohio (HB 376); Nevada (SB 192); Oregon (Protect Religious Freedom Initiative); Mississippi (SB 2681); Utah (House Joint Resolution 1); Idaho (HB 426 and HB 427) and others.
The slow creep of human history pushes towards freedom and away from repression. When the progeny of those onlookers pictured in that diner 50 years back see that image today, what do you think they think of their ancestors? What will yours think of you?
If those who oppose treating LGBT Americans as fellow human beings don’t want continued correlations to be drawn between these two civil rights struggles, then they are the ones who need to stop working to create indistinguishable circumstances.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.