ATLANTA (Dec. 11, 2004) — The rainbow bandana tied around B.J. Jackson’s left arm caught the eye of many people entering the King Center grounds Saturday morning, braving rain and cold to march in support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
“Yeah — we people,” Jackson said defiantly, her head nodding and arms stretched out in a crucified position.
“Amen,” said one woman walking by with her family.
The Dec. 11, 2004, “Re-ignite the Legacy” march — coordinated by Bishop Eddie Long, leader of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia — drew between 20,000 and 25,000 people, according to Atlanta Police Department estimates.
The trek from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s gravesite to Turner Field was in response to Long’s call for black churches to become more vocal political players on issues like banning same-sex marriage, reforming the education and health care systems, and creating economic opportunities for minorities.
“It’s time for us to get back into the conversation of the nation,” Long told his followers before the march. “Get back into the conversation and allow those things that we believe, firmly — know there’s a mandate for us to get [those] accomplished.”
Jackson, board chair of the black lesbian group ZAMI, was among the first of about 50 gay and lesbian protesters who assembled on the King Center grounds at 8:30 a.m. hoping to counter the church march, which was set to begin at 9:45 a.m.
But the counter protesters were soon told by park security that they could not remain on the premises. They moved their demonstration onto the streets of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood. The counter protest’s visibility and numbers grew once they gathered on Jackson Street, but they were soon told to move again.
Atlanta Police Officer C.J. Franklin first told protesters they were violating a city ordinance prohibiting signs larger than 2-feet by 2-feet from use in demonstrations. When protesters refused to believe Franklin, the officer told them they were assembled on private property and were potentially blocking traffic.
There is no city ordinance restricting the size of protest signs, but the officer was referring to the police department’s “Guidelines for a Peaceful Protest,” said Sgt. Connie Locke, APD’s gay liaison, in an e-mail interview.
“These guidelines are not city ordinances, but they are guidelines issued by the police department to all organizations that wish to demonstrate or protest to ensure public safety and public right of way,” Locke said. “Any [larger signage] presents a safety issue for those utilizing the sidewalk.”
Signs in hand, the protesters finally settled on the corner of Jackson and Auburn Avenue, the starting point through which all of the church marchers passed.
“I’m looking at the people just stream, and stream and stream down the sidewalk, and it amazes me how many people will wake up so early in the morning to support such a hateful message,” Jackson said.
The gay protesters — organized by activists Kevin Bynes, Anthony Antoine and Craig Washington — encountered little hostility, beyond a man crossing the street and staring face-to-face with them.
The diverse group was also chided when they chanted, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Homophobia has got to go!”
Standing across the street, Wanda E. White of Atlanta leaned toward the protesters to mimic their chant, but replaced “homophobia” with “homosexuals.”
“People live their lives like they want to, and I’m not here to judge them, but once you move God out of society, you have a big problem,” White said.
As marchers passed the protesters, their comments ranged from “I’ve got nothing but love for you,” to “You need Jesus” and “In the name of Jesus, wake up.”
Carrying a torch lit from the eternal flame at King’s tomb, Long marched past the gay protesters at 10:07 a.m., briefly glancing their way and offering a closed-lip smile.
“The worst behavior we had from the marchers was self-righteousness, but they were pretty well behaved,” said Bynes, who works for AID Atlanta. “Many of them mirrored Bishop Long’s smug attitude, sort of ignoring the fact that we were there.
“It’s painful to know they could ignore the pain of LGBT people and what they did to us,” added Bynes, who shouted “Shame on you,” as Long marched past.
March motives questioned
Long — flanked by his wife, Vanessa, and march co-organizer Rev. Bernice King, the late civil rights leader’s youngest daughter — led a river of Christians as wide as the street that flowed rapidly for 23 minutes before all of the marchers passed the gay protest.
The bishop was traveling this week and unavailable for comment, according to his staff. But Long issued a statement Dec. 8 saying the march “is not a demonstration to alienate or separate any group of people.”
“This march was not derived out of an idea to protest same-sex marriage, but to present a unified vision of righteousness and justice,” Long said in the statement.
With Georgia’s 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and a constitutional ban on gay marriages ratified by voters last month, activists questioned the sincerity of Long’s display of influence.
“I think it was an exercise of self-aggrandizement,” said protest co-organizer Washington, who works for Positive Impact. “And we were clear that Eddie Long was not only acting out of bigotry and homophobia, but he was also courting faith-based initiative money and getting in bed with Republicans by scape-goating gays.”
Some black clergy are eager to cozy up to conservative Republicans in hopes of securing faith-based grants, said journalist Esther Kaplan, author of the recently released, “With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy & Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House.”
“It cannot be bad for your career as a black minister at this point to speak out against gay marriage,” Kaplan said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of interest in the Republicans and the Christian Right to find these black figurehead types who will give lip-service to their moral agenda.”
Long’s ministry received a $1 million faith-based, “individual development account” grant from the U.S. Administration of Children & Families, according to Bill Pierce, a spokesperson for the Health & Human Services office.
Black leaders speak out
Several prominent black clergy, civil rights leaders and politicians harshly rebuked the New Birth march, saying Martin Luther King Jr. would not have supported Long’s message.
The critics included U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); Rev. Joseph Lowery, former SCLC president; and Rev. Timothy McDonald III, head of the African-American Ministers’ Leadership Conference.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), who along with McDonald is among the plaintiffs seeking to strike Georgia’s gay marriage amendment in court, also condemned Long’s march. The effort to co-opt black votes by focusing on moral wedge issues is a “waste of time,” Brooks said.
“Because the Republican Party refuses to embrace issues that are very important to African Americans, it’s going to be very difficult for this ploy to be effective,” said Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials.
Black state legislators were gay Georgians’ most solid ally during the gay marriage fight, with 46 of 49 black lawmakers voting against the ban.
State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said he expects the Dec. 11 march to have little impact on that support.
“You have African-American leaders like Dr. Lowery and Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King engaged in this debate, so knowing my colleagues, I don’t figure it will have a large impact,” Fort said.
King’s widow has been a staunch public supporter of gay civil rights.
The King Center did not respond to repeated interview requests about whether it supported the march. But the center, along with the city, granted march organizers a permit, according to Locke from APD.
Despite their comparatively low numbers, gay protesters said their presence at the march was a beginning toward changing attitudes about gay equality.
“As gay people, we deserve rights just as everyone else,” said Terrell Whitaker, a College Park resident. “It was a small crowd, but we were a good crowd in spirits. I think [the marchers] heard us. I hope they did.”
In addition to continuing the fight for their own dignity and rights, gay activists must do a better job of nurturing alliances with groups representing blacks, women and labor unions to stand with them under fire, Bynes said.
“The failure to partner more effectively has allowed for this kind of march to happen,” Bynes said.
Gay activists now monitoring New Birth Missionary Baptist Church sent a mass e-mail this week about the church’s alleged partnership with a Starbucks Coffee shop in Conyers.
But a spokesperson for the national Starbucks chain said the church’s Web site is incorrect when it implies that the coffee store is donating coffee and pastries to New Birth’s college ministry.
“The only relationship that store has with the church is a business relationship — they catered for the church, but nothing was [donated], it’s all been purchased,” said Starbucks spokesperson Alan Hilowitz.
The church “characterized [the relationship] differently than what it is,” Hilowitz said.