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Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell Headshot

Words Matter

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"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

These words of Martin Luther King have become almost like a mantra to me. My entire life in the pulpit has taught me that words do matter and our values are reflected in words.

This mantra has served to remind me that even as I remember the injustices that my African and African-American ancestors experienced, and as I have experienced personally because of my race, I must not be unaware of, insensitive to, or disregard the injustices that others experience. Their injustice experience may not be race-based, but whatever the reason, theirs is an injustice that is linked to the injustice I have known.

I joined the struggle for LGBT equality because of this shared experience of injustice. No immediate member of my family is an LGBT person, and my sexual orientation is heterosexual, but if I claimed to embrace the words of Dr. King, I must live and act out the values of those words.

The recent announcement of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) proclaiming their support for marriage equality for same-sex couples was for me a long-awaited decision by an organization that has been such a stalwart in the struggle for Constitution-based equality and justice for African Americans. The NAACP, through some of its branches, had resisted the efforts of some states that opposed marriage equality, but the decision by the national board has historic importance for a host of reasons, including that words do matter.

There was a moment in the press conference announcing the decision by the NAACP when the words of Martin Luther King showed themselves to be personal to Ben Jealous, the President of the NAACP. In response to a question, he choked up as he remembered how a couple, not a same-sex couple but an interracial couple, his parents, had to encounter and transcend the legally enforced bias once imposed on interracial couples when they sought to be married.

It has been difficult for me to understand how any person who is aware of the prohibitions against interracial marriage of the past, who cannot comprehend how that could be true in the United States of America, would not feel the same way about the denial of marriage equality to same-sex couples today.

When I first heard of the action of the NAACP, I thought of Dr. King's words and of someone who embodied them as a life member of the NAACP: Kivie Kaplan. Kivie was known throughout the nation, particularly among blacks, for his enthusiastic commitment to the NAACP, as a national board member and officer of the organization. A white Jewish man from Boston, Kivie was deeply involved in the efforts of Jews to challenge the insensitivity and bias they experienced, and he also understood the similarities of injustice, as well as the meaning of Martin Luther King's words about the interconnectedness of injustice. He always saw the relationship between the struggles of his people and the words and actions of the NAACP.

I also thought not just of Dr. King's words but of the words of a song by Billy Taylor, the gifted jazz musician: "I wish I knew how it feels to be free. I wish I could break all the chains holding me."

The founders of our nation, despite their sometimes contradictory actions, believed that all persons were created equal. They believed that this was a "self-evident" truth. That is why Martin Luther King, in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, repeated those words in his call for civil rights: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [men] are created equal."

I find it especially encouraging when persons whose may have experienced exclusion for reasons of race, place of birth, or otherwise affirm marriage equality for same-sex couples. Colin Powell, for example, a person of color with a Caribbean background, in an institution -- the military -- that once was racially segregated, understands, through experience and insight, the foolish folly of bias against any person or group.

It is why when the president of the United States stood up and uttered his support for marriage equality for same-sex couples, it mattered. It is why, when the NAACP passed a resolution supporting same-sex marriage and spoke of the relationship between their work and LGBT equality, it mattered. And it is why when our former Secretary of State, a retired four-star general of the U.S. Army, stood up this week in support of marriage equality, it mattered.

When marriage equality for same-sex couples becomes a national reality, the legal chains that have for so long limited the freedom of LGBT persons and same-sex couples will be on their way toward being broken completely, and we all will have moved closer to the one day when our national creeds are reflected in our deeds without exception.