I was in the Back Bay Thursday, on the second floor of the Library, when I saw the headline, US Clerk jailed for gay marriage defiance; dispute goes on.
I was on the subway coming back to Somerville, ruminating on the headline. It made people think of the sixties. I was thinking of 1964 and Freedom Summer. I thought of the deaths that summer of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. The three young men, one a Southerner, the others from the Northeast, were civil rights activists. They had volunteered to work on voter registration in Mississippi with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They disappeared from Philadelphia, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964. Mississippi was a dangerous, lethal, even savage place then, and everybody thought the men were murdered. This transfixed the nation. The FBI and the federal government—President Lyndon Johnson—directed the search for the bodies. Official Mississippi didn’t want to do anything that might help CORE and didn’t want to do anything that might help the feds find the murderers. The movie Mississippi Burning is about these events that summer. Schwerner’s and Chaney’s and Goodman’s bodies were found on August 4, 1964, six weeks after they disappeared. In January 1965, seventeen men were arrested for their murders. They were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was two years before the trial started, which opened on October 7, 1967. First, the charge was wrong. The seventeen men were not charged with murder. The wrong branch of government brought the charges. Murder is a state matter, and the state officials in Mississippi refused to bring a charge of murder against the seventeen men. The federal government brought a charge of a Klan conspiracy to murder the three civil rights workers, which brings a lesser sentence. We knew that the seventeen men had gotten away with murder. The struggle for justice for Black people began before Brown v. Board of Education and is not done yet.
America has difficulty dealing with crimes that have to do with race—or gender, and sexuality. This is probably so because our judicial system is embedded deep in the people. Judges, prosecutors, juries are all people who will go back to being people when their time as operators in the judicial system is over. It is difficult to separate the judicial system from the prejudices of the people, and sometimes it is impossible.
Kim Davis is in jail. I had thought the US District Judge would threaten her, give her a week or a month, perhaps, to issue licenses to all qualified couples seeking to be married, before taking any of the scores of actions the federal judiciary has at its disposal to force compliance with the constitution, and then, finally, at the end levy some light, inconsequential fine that would allow things to go on as they had before. This is the way it has always been in the South.
But, no. She refused, and BAM! It was over. US Marshalls led Kim Davis from the courtroom, and she began her incarceration, imposed on her not as punishment but as a means of compelling her submission to the rule of law.
Anyone who lived through the sixties was stunned at this. During those years, we grew accustomed to authorities unable to acknowledge the crimes that were manifestly being committed, uninterested in pursuing criminals, unwilling to charge criminals with crimes, and willing to allow months, years, decades to drag on without one person actually losing his freedom for the crimes he had committed. They were white, and their victims were usually Black.
The Supreme Court rejected Davis’s plea for a stay on Monday, August 31, 2015, and Judge David Bunning scheduled a hearing on Thursday, September 3, on the question of whether Kim Davis should be held in contempt of court. At the end of the hearing, she was led away by US Marshalls. Four of her clerks then agreed to dispense marriage licenses. Four days!
So, things do change. Important things change, even among unlikely people. And we—I mean us, LGBTQ folk—aren’t going to have to wait fifty years for it, either. I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.