I can’t count the times I’ve heard Amazing Grace, the beautiful 18th Century Christian hymn that became the emblematic African American spiritual. But two of those stand out for me, one intimate and very personal, the other sung just days ago. It was a cold January evening in 1996 when a few of us — close friends and family — gathered at a shrub lined traffic circle on a stately Orange New Jersey street to spread the ashes of the American conductor Henry Lewis. He loved the house across from that spot where he had lived with his then wife and still close friend, the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, and their daughter Angela. My parents’ home had been just a few doors up the street. As we stood shivering in the circle, Marilyn — I can hear his deep voice intoning her given name — spontaneously started to sing Amazing Grace. The experience has stayed with me ever since. I never hear it sung without thinking of that moment.
The second of course was a rendition of the spiritual by the President of the United States in a Charleston stadium. It was the coda of his eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and the eight parishioners who had been massacred days earlier in their historic church. I can’t think of another occasion where a president has incorporated song into a speech, though it is not that uncommon for preachers in an African American church. And a sermon it was; one that prompted the presiding elder of the A.M.E. Church to “thank the Reverend President”. So much for “no drama Obama”. Now as much as I admire our chief executive, in contrast to my dear friend Marilyn Horne, when it comes to singing he should definitely stick to his day job. Even so, like that night in Orange, I will never forget his Amazing Grace. The entire eulogy, part tribute and part powerful and passionate message about the events and deficiencies that brought us to that stadium. It was among the most important and compelling of his presidency — a must watch.
It was a full day for Obama. Just hours before the funeral he stood in the Rose Garden praising the Supreme Court’s historic decision confirming the Constitutional right of gay and lesbian citizens to marry. Only the day before, the Court essentially affirmed the Affordable Care Act. But as important as healthcare is, the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision stands as a landmark along with Brown vs. Board of Education. Like Brown it, beyond all else, is a civil rights — a human rights — ruling. It’s not surprising that somehow I linked it with those two Amazing Grace experiences. Henry and Marilyn were an interracial couple, exercising a right of marriage that had been the subject of Loving vs. Virginia, another historic Supreme Court case. What happened in Charleston brought to the fore not only continuing racism (discussed in my last post) but also the need wipe the symbols of our dark past from public spaces.
To be gay or lesbian in our society, or more broadly part of the LGBT community, is to have experienced discrimination to which any African American can relate. To paraphrase Martin King, they have only wanted to be judged by the content of their minds not by their sexual orientation. Burdened with outmoded religious and societal doctrine and resultant misinformed imposed “norms” was often to endure great and undeserved personal pain. For many it meant suffering unsupported in silence. Frank Bruni, expresses movingly in his column, how that felt and how liberating it now feels after Friday’s ruling.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, will go down as the judicial hero of LGBT rights. The foundation of his decision rested on four essentials. First, the right of personal choice. Second, support of two-person unions. Third, safeguarding children and the family. Fourth, marriage is the keystone of our social order. In the Court’s view, these essentials are not the domain of only a portion of the community but of all. It is much that same as was true when earlier courts, through a series of decisions, mandated an end to segregation and racial discrimination.
Kennedy ended his opinion with these memorable words:
“No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it so deeply that they seek to find it fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
A Constitutional right was exactly the broad decision for which all of us who support marriage equality had hoped. It did not sit well with opponents. Indeed, it provoked an almost sarcastic response from a dissenting Chief Justice who enumerated all the things that the majority decision will facilitate but asserted, “…do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.” Chief or not, dissents don’t count. The majority decision stands as the law of the land.
In the days to come you’re likely to hear the charge that this and the ACA rulings are the product of an “activist court”. Sound familiar? It’s a charge that has been leveled at different times by all sides of the political spectrum. As I understand it, “activist court” means only one thing. It’s a court that makes decisions with which we disagree. Citizens United was the product of an activist court and so too is Obergefell vs. Hodges. The remarkable thing about this year is that looking at the major decisions of the current Roberts Court term, we see a clear — though it may be temporary — shift to the left. A NY Times analysis points to one of the most liberal decision making courts in recent memory. While mostly siding with fellow conservatives, Roberts authored one of those “left leaning” rulings, the very unambiguous affirmation of the ACA.
The ACA decision represents a setback for Republican critics. Their claims that it is an unsuccessful even disastrous program sound hollower every day. My guess is that polls still finding the country evenly split will begin to shift more positive. Come Election Day 2016 the issue of GOP dominated states refusing to expand Medicaid may begin to hurt. More significant may be the marriage decision. Republicans are already having difficulty attracting young and minority voters. The immediate reaction of all their presidential candidates was negative. Not all were calling for a Constitutional Amendment, but most will be seeking ways to subvert the ruling or find ways around it under the guise of religious liberty. To add to their problems, a number of them have received campaign contributions from Earl Holt, the White Supremacist who may have inspired the Charleston shooter. They are returning the money and of course claim it was not solicited. Perhaps, but the fact that a bigot like Holt finds these candidates attractive enough to support financially speaks volumes about the message going forth from what once was the party of Lincoln.
We will not soon forget the week of June 22, 2015. What happened in Washington especially will touch the lives of millions for years to come. The president characterized Friday’s marriage decision as another step in perfecting the Union. That his day also included paying tribute to nine citizens who were the victim of hateful violence — whether a hate crime or home-grown terrorism — is a sober reminder that much perfection is yet to be achieved. In the face of the good and evil that marked these past weeks, we must find a way to endure and, more importantly, to find a way forward toward that perfection. In doing so we would do well to remember Amazing Grace and the sweetness of that sound.