CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It was not a surprise when National Organization for Marriage memos revealed the conservative group’s strategy to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party’s base of black voters and gay voters using the issue of same-sex marriage. In North Carolina, a swing state the Democrats are fighting to win in November, a Tuesday primary might show if the strategy is working -- or it may mean nothing at all.
Black voters themselves would like to be seen not as a single block of followers but as individuals with nuanced and complicated views on this issue as on many others.
Early voting is strong so far, certainly driven in part by the proposed amendment to the North Carolina constitution on the ballot that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” Since state law already forbids same-sex marriage, is the effort a waste of time and money and does it go too far, or is it a necessary protection against future judicial and legislative action?
Recent polls show that while likely primary voters are still planning to vote for the amendment by a 14-point margin, 55 to 41, African American opposition numbers have been rising and stand at 43. In that Public Policy Polling survey, Democrats are opposed, 54 to 42.
When the issue is framed as traditional religious beliefs vs. a civil rights issue, African American voters find themselves put on the spot. Dwayne A. Walker, pastor at Charlotte’s Little Rock AME Zion Church, doesn’t see it that way.
He is with his denomination’s stand on marriage. While he welcomes all to his church, “I can believe God intends for men to marry women and women to marry men,” he told me. “As pastor of Little Rock, I will certainly not be performing any same-sex weddings.” But Walker is against changing the state’s constitution. “I think that it has some unintended consequences,” he said. “I really think it’s a Trojan horse that would do more harm than good for families other than same-sex couples.”
“This amendment would actually legalize discrimination,” he said, and he is against setting that precedent. Walker has told his congregation: “You vote however you feel, but please take another look at this amendment. Some of my members came to me and thanked me.”
“I want to believe that most people are savvy enough that they can divide one issue from another,” Walker said. “The truth of the matter is the black community has never been monolithic in our opinions.”
Both sides are spending and raising money, from big donors and out of state. Such amendments have passed in every other southeastern state. Recent reports have amendment opponent Coalition to Protect NC Families raising more than $2.2 million in the last period, with $1.2 million for Vote for Marriage NC, amendment supporters.
State civil rights groups such as the NAACP are opposed, and well known names have weighed in. Harvey Gantt, elected Charlotte’s first black mayor in the 1980’s, has joined with former Republican mayor Richard Vinroot in a video urging a “no” vote. “We don’t yet know the effect of Amendment One and all the harm that it might do,” Gantt says in the video. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is African American, is against the amendment, as well.
President Obama – though criticized for not mentioning the issue in a recent trip to Chapel Hill – offered his opinion in March. While he does not comment on every state issue, a statement from his campaign’s N.C. press secretary said, “The record is clear that the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples. That’s what the North Carolina ballot initiative would do – it would single out and discriminate against committed gay and lesbian couples – and that’s why the President does not support it.”
Walker, who offered a prayer at last year’s kickoff event for the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte, said of the president, “I’m an avid Democrat, and will be supporting him again,” despite differences on some issues. He said it’s “a trick” to make it seem like the black community is going to turn on Obama because of this issue.
When some opponents of the bill compare the LGBT rights struggle with the civil rights movement to win equality for African Americans, he said he understands. “People are passionate about their identity and don’t understand why other people won’t accept it.”
Brenda Jackson disagrees. She spoke out at a public forum, one of several being organized by community, university and church groups to discuss the implications of the marriage amendment. Jackson strongly supports the amendment, what she calls an “important” topic. “As an African American woman,” she said she takes “exceptional distaste” to any notion that links LGBT equality to the meaning and sacrifices of the civil right movement. “Marriage is defined between a man and a woman and that’s it.”
Even some African Americans who intend to vote against the amendment have bristled when supporters of LGBT rights equate their struggle with the civil rights movement and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.
It’s one reason U.S. Rep. Mel Watt urges activists of any cause to resist comparisons. The North Carolina Democrat told me: “It can cut several different ways. I have long discouraged the gay community from comparing attitudes that they experienced to what African Americans have experienced, just like I discourage African Americans from likening their slavery and discrimination history to the Holocaust. All of these things are forms of discrimination.”
When Watt recently traveled to North Carolina from Washington, he was invited to say a few words, as is the custom, in his Presbyterian home church at Sunday service. “I’m going to tread into some territory that’s a little different,” he said he told the congregation, “a difficult issue for church people to talk about.”
Watt expressed his opinion that the amendment “is more about intolerance than it is about gay marriage. When I look at it, I ask can I or can anybody afford to be intolerant.” He said several people came up to him afterward, and said they would have voted for the amendment but appreciated his perspective and would think about it in a different light.
“I’m elected to represent the constitutional view as opposed to the Christian or Biblical view,” said Watt, a member of the House Judiciary committee.
“I just try to do what I think is the right thing to do and the politics will take care of itself.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3