06/26/2011 12:18 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2011

Marriage Equality: The Last One Standing Loses

It was January 14, 1963, a newly elected governor promised voters he would do everything possible to "provide a better life" for the children of the state. He invoked freedom and free enterprise as his motivation and then, in contradiction, said; "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny... and I say... segregation today... segregation tomorrow... segregation forever!"

Alabama Governor George C. Wallace invoked God, tradition, and freedom in that speech. He warned of "centralized government" and told his supporters:

We find we have replaced faith with fear... and though we may give lip service to the Almighty... In reality, government has become our god. It is, therefore, a basically ungodly government and its appeal to the pseudo-intellectual and the politician is to change their status from servant of the people to master of the people... to play at being God... without faith in God... and without the wisdom of God.

He raved against the judiciary and said he was fighting for "our freedom of race and religion." A few months later, Wallace physically stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in opposition to the "judicial activism" of a federal judge who said the state did not have the right to exclude black students. For his efforts, Wallace was awarded an "honorary doctorate" from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University. Bob Jones, Jr. praised Wallace for showing "there is still in America love for freedom, hard common sense, and at least some hope for the preservation of our Constitutional liberties." The university honored other prominent bigots as well, such as Lester Maddox (1969), and Strom Thurmond (1948).

Richard and Mildred Loving were convicted of violating a Virginia marriage law, because they were a racially mixed couple. Their conviction was supported by a judge who invoked God's will in applying the law. But the Supreme Court, in 1968, disagreed and legalized their marriage. Today, millions of people remember Mildred and Richard Loving. The children and grandchildren of the Lovings have expressed their love and admiration for the couple, because of what they fought for.

But who remembers Leon Bazile? Very few people I suspect. He was the judge in the Loving case who told the world that "the fact that [God] separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." Do you think his children and grandchildren take pride in his efforts?

By 1979, Wallace confessed: "I was wrong. Those days are over and they ought to be over."

By the time Wallace died, even Bob Jones University had started admitting black students (1972), provided they were married. By 1975, the University got around to allowing unmarried black students to enroll, but still forbade interracial dating or marriage. It took them another 25 years (2000) before they dropped the ban on interracial dating. It took until 2008 before they apologized for policies they admitted "were racially hurtful," even though they blamed "American culture" and in spite of the culture changing long before they did.

George Wallace was, for most of his political career, a defender of the Jim Crow legal tradition that treated black Americans as second-class citizens. He eventually changed his mind, but what he is remembered for is his vigorous defense of segregation. He was one of the last prominent advocates of a racist agenda in American politics, a reputation he came to regret. Being the "last one standing" in an unjust cause is no reason for pride. History is the final judge. When it comes to issues as basic as individual rights and justice, in the political game, the last one standing loses.

It we look at the New York State vote on gay marriage this point is well illustrated in the tale of two Republicans. Senator Roy McDonald announced his intention to vote in favor of marriage equality. "You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it; I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing." If anyone recalls the words of this debate, it will be the words of Roy McDonald that they remember, along with the results. In that brief moment Roy McDonald became the voice of marriage equality.

On the other hand, Senator Greg Ball, played politics, pretending to be undecided, in order to demand concession -- most of which he got -- and then thumbing his nose and sticking with the status quo. I doubt anyone found inspiration in his words, or in his political game playing. At best, if lucky, Ball may play the role of a Judge Bazile, leaving the less-desirable role of George Wallace to Maggie Gallagher.

Like Wallace, Republicans and some Democrats, continue to stand in the schoolhouse door, chanting the modern equivalent to "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

What I must wonder is how many of these men and women will, like Wallace and Bob Jones University, come to regret their "principled" stand for unequal treatment of their fellow Americans?

Imagine the future. More and more states will, on their own, legalize marriage equality. At some point I expect the Supreme Court to rule and marriage equality will become a nation-wide reality. When that happens, and when the sky fails to fall in on us, what will the last men and women standing up for inequality of rights feel about their endeavors? Will they boast to their children or grandchildren how they fought equality of rights to the very end? Especially if, as is inevitable for some of them, some of their progeny turn out to be gay themselves.