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Aubrey Sarvis Headshot

MLK Jr., Civil Rights, DADT and the Urgency of Leading

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Watching President Obama's stirring Martin Luther King day speech at the Vermont Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, I thought -- and not for the first time -- yes! the president wants to do the right thing in opening military service to all qualified men and women.

He just has to do it.

I felt the same way two years ago when on the same occasion he told the crowd in Martin Luther King's Atlanta church, "Unity is the great need of the hour . . . because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country. . . I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny." He deplored discrimination against gays and lesbians then, too.

Yesterday the president said, "The urgency of the hour demands that we fight discrimination, whatever form it may come.  That means we fight discrimination against gays and lesbians . . ." He has said much the same thing more times than I can count. Martin Luther King Jr. talked the talk. He also walked the walk.

Having your heart in the right place, while at least a beginning, is not enough for this President of the United States. His vision of America, his eloquence of speech and the power of his office make it possible, make it incumbent on him to lead the way in overturning the last federal law that discriminates against a class of Americans solely by their sexual orientation: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

But there is ground to cover between the desire and the deed -- and arms to be twisted. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), for example, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who 17 years ago played an instrumental role in crafting the DADT law, said over the weekend that he's opposed to repealing it -- the wars, the disruption, and so on. You can see Mr. Skelton's interview here on C-Span.

A commenter in the Kansas City Star, "DWatson," asked the Congressman, "As a father of three men, could you explain how you would feel if one of them turned out gay and was treated with contempt by the fear that's being demonstrated by our military over gay people? This is the same contempt that was shown to African Americans during WWII. . . . Do you really think there were no gay cadets around you when you were at WMA (Wentworth Military Academy)? Mr. Skelton, I remember you going after a cadet 2nd lieutenant at WMA because he was dehumanizing a subordinate. I remember you telling this cadet what he was doing was not right, and if he continued you would make sure you would have his rank for his actions. Mr. Skelton, when are you going to stand up like President Harry S Truman did for the African Americans, and stand up for gay people who have honorably served their country, and even died for their country? When are you going to tell the military to get over their pettiness and grow up?"

On Sunday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted the two lawyers who in 2000 were on opposite sides before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, the conservative Ted Olson and his liberal adversary David Boies, now joined together as co-counsel in the challenge to California's ban against gay marriage playing in the federal district in San Francisco.

"I've got a grandson who's a senior in college, and he can't imagine fighting over this issue," Boies told Dowd. "It's like explaining to my daughter that there was a time when women didn't have the right to vote and couldn't own property. . . . I hope my Democratic president will catch up to my conservative Republican co-counsel."

It's a generational thing. (Rep. Skelton is rapidly approaching 80. The president, however, is 48. No excuses, as my friends at the Human Rights Campaign Committee say when it comes to repealing DADT.)

Dowd wrote, "What [Obama] doesn't realize is that legalizing gay marriage is like electing a black president. Before you do it, it seems inconceivable. Once it's done, you can't remember what all the fuss was about."

Exactly. When that day comes, the president said yesterday, it "will be a victory for dignity and decency, for our common humanity. This will be a victory for the United States of America." The president was speaking of health insurance. I am speaking of DADT. The same words apply, and when that law is finally junked it will be a moral victory for the president as well as the nation -- and people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

I have faith that it will happen -- but it will be very difficult this year without the President leading the way.