There's really no telling what the 29 black intellectuals who met 100 years ago in Niagara Falls would think of America today. Of course, the same might be said of Americans in the year 2105 who look back to see how we lived out our lives a century before. There's good reason, however, to believe that the 29 men, led by W.E.B. Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, would hardly recognize this as the same country.
At the dawn of 20th-century America, those black men journeyed to Niagara Falls, N.Y., to prepare a militant statement on race and inequality that was to stand in sharp contrast to the conciliatory and accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington -- white America's favorite black man at the time. Hotels on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls wouldn't let them register, however. So their demands were drafted in a hotel on the Canadian side of the falls.
The breadth of legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination 100 years ago remains a historical shame. But what will Americans 100 years down the road think when they examine our era?
In 1905, when the Niagara Movement -- forerunner to the NAACP -- was born, nowhere was the color line more heat-tempered and rock-hard than when it came to sex. The prohibition against interracial marriage was a national obsession, enshrined in both law and tradition.
Consider this: As early as 1664, Maryland earned the distinction of becoming the first colony to ban marriages between blacks and whites. The other southern colonies played catch-up in the decades that followed. They weren't alone. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts also joined the pack.
In the 19th century, interracial marriage was illegal in most states. As the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund noted in a brief in a New Jersey case, "by the 1960s, at least 41 states had enacted anti-miscegenation statutes."
The arguments mounted against interracial marriage also had a familiar ring. Fact and God played heavily in the judgments.
The Georgia Supreme Court in 1869 based its interracial marriage ban on natural law, observing that "the God of nature made it otherwise, and no human law can produce it, and no human tribunal can enforce it."
Hear the 1871 Indiana Supreme Court quoting an 1867 Pennsylvania decision: Racial separation is enacted not because of "prejudice, nor caste, nor injustice of any kind, but simply to suffer men to follow the law of races established by the Creator himself, and not to compel them to intermix contrary to their instincts."
The North Carolina Supreme Court in 1869 upheld the state's anti-race mixing law, stating that "the policy of prohibiting the intermarriage of the two races is so well established, and the wishes of both races so well known."
A host of state anti-miscegenation laws -- strongly backed by white public sentiment -- were upheld in state courts well into the 20th century. The reasoning was simple and absolute: Marriage between the races defied the natural order; intermarriage bans had legitimate historical roots and were based on a "divinely ordained" scheme. Conclusion: Government had the right to define marriage as a union of two persons of the same race.
It remained that way for generations, until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, ruled that state laws setting forth who can marry whom violate "one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men" -- marriage -- and the "principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment."
So much, therefore, for the ruling of the Virginia judge who, in 1959, had sentenced the interracial couple, the Lovings, stating: "Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
So much, too, for the unbending, firmly ingrained, immutable understanding enshrined in law and court rulings that interracial partners cannot marry.
Now fast-forward past today to 100 years from now. How will future generations view our present-day fight against allowing monogamous couples with life commitments to each other to marry? What will they think of our rush to enact state laws prohibiting same-sex life partners from joining the same institution shared by different-sex couples? How will they regard our assertion that there is a public interest in promoting discrimination in the marriage statute?
Let's get one issue out of the way before the e-mails and letters start flooding in. I don't equate the long, bloody struggle of African Americans against racial injustice, ugly brutality and unjust treatment with the effort to give equal rights to lesbians and gay men.
But I do believe that homosexuals are subject to prejudice and that they are forbidden the same rights and safeguards that heterosexuals enjoy, including the right to marry. That, in my book, is wrong.
There is justice to their cause that should be ours, too. Leaving the security of the majority to stand up and say so ought not be so hard in 2005. Sadly, for many Americans, it is. Just as it was 1905.