One of my favorite TV shows in the days of my youth was "You Are There" which featured re-enactments of famous moments in history with the addition of a TV newsman, I think the show was on CBS so Walter Cronkite Mike Wallace might be interviewing General Custer before his famous battle or something like that. The idea of the show was wonderful, to put the viewer in the middle, as much as possible, or a history making event. To me, that's the point of studying history, to put ourselves into those moments that create change and try to understand the factors at work and how we are impacted by those events today.
Over the years teaching school I've often heard students express disbelief or disgust when studying the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. "How could people be so cruel?" or "How could people be so stupid? Don't they know everyone deserves equal rights?" These are common questions and challenging ones too. They are challenging because while you might be tempted to write off the bigots of the Citizen's Councils or the KKK as deviant members of society they represent the feelings and beliefs of a much larger, although not always as vocal, section of society.
As a teacher I have appreciated the current civil rights struggle for marriage equality on several levels. First, of course is the fact that people are demanding their equal rights and at the moment things are going well in the fight for equality, at least in the courts. Second, it gives today's students a chance to see a civil rights struggle play out. The voices against equality chant the same slogans and invoke the same religious traditions as they did a half century ago. The recent attempts at creating new laws that allow discrimination in states like Arizona even create the same photo opps of people being denied service at restaurants, hotels, and other public places. Students who have asked those questions and expressed disbelief at the bigotry on display need look no further than the front page of the paper or the evening news.
As before, those who hope to discriminate and seek legal backing to do so, act as if they are the ones being discriminated against. Talk to any true believer in the myth of the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy"and you'll get an earful about how terrible it was that they were denied the right to buy and sell humans. As recently as this past year a congress person used the phrase "The war of Northern Aggression" to describe the Civil War that was started by the Confederate States of America over their desire to continue slavery. Discrimination based on the color of one's skin was a time honored tradition sanctioned by religious beliefs that were near and dear to many people and this, I think, highlights another learning opportunity for us.
The leading voices against marriage equality all come from pretty much the same position, that allowing people the right to marry would infringe on the religious freedom of those who believe it is wrong. The recent attempts at legalizing discrimination in Arizona and Kansas go even further by saying that you should be able to discriminate against anyone who lives in a way you find objectionable. Of course a quick read-through of the Constitution should clear up any questions about making laws to enforce your particular religious beliefs on others and I would think a bit of common sense, if not common decency, would render the argument that your religious beliefs make it intolerable to encounter anyone who doesn't except your particular views as the gospel truth, seem rather ridiculous.
The opportunity that I see is for those students I've referred to and for those who support the founding documents and work for equality to develop some empathy for the bigotry.
I'm not talking about a free pass, I honestly believe that those claiming infringement of their religious liberties are misguided at best. I'm thinking more of trying to understand what fuels this resistance to equality. I realize that it may well come off as sounding patronizing and condescending "Oh those poor religious fundamentalists blah, blah..." If so, okay, that's my fault and I'll work on that, we don't all get things right the first time. When I think of students asking me about the KKK and people screaming at the Little Rock students walking to school I want to find ways to make those faces from the old black and white newsreels come to life. Today we have that opportunity. The people who fight equal rights may indeed be lovely people to spend time with. They might be your kind grandfather or your aunt, your mother or father. They may indeed be frightened that something important to them is being taken away. If you've grown up being taught that dark skin meant that the person was inferior and that it would threaten your world to allow them the same rights as you then to be told that your beliefs were bigoted, as true as that may be, would be a rude awakening. I've spoken to many friends in the past few years who are mightily offended by the notion that their opposition to marriage equality for example makes them a bigot. "Its not bigotry if you're discriminating because of a religious belief" one person told me. It seems to be a rude awakening or maybe a nightmare to think that you might be a fellow traveler with those hurling insults at Ruby Bridges fifty years ago.
One of the teachable moments we have right now is to remember that people are not two dimensional characters, they are much more complex. Those contorted faces screaming at African American children going to school have perhaps become more like fairy tale villains than real people who went to work, loved their families and lived real lives. Bigotry doesn't always look like evil on the surface. Sometimes it shows up as people who are friends or family who might belong the same church as you do who are expressing beliefs you have been taught to accept since you were a child. I think that we will be able to move forward as a society embracing and promoting equality which benefits us all if we can learn to recognize when that equality is threatened because it won't always be obvious.
History is playing out in front of us every day and perhaps when people study this time in the future and students ask "How could people have been so cruel? Didn't they realize that we all deserve equal rights?" Some of us will be around to remind each other that its not always so obvious when you are denying someone else their civil rights, especially if they look and act differently than us, and we'll encourage them to look around to see what, perhaps uncomfortable, opportunities exist to promote equality.