On September 30th 1962, James Meredith took up the mission to integrate the University of Mississippi. The result was a cliff-hanging fourteen day showdown between the State of Mississippi, a mob of 2000 white civilians, 400 US Deputy Marshals and 30,000 American Combat troops.
There are still bullet holes in the Lyceum, the venerable central administration building with tall white columns that sits in the middle of the campus. Two died during the tense days and nights—but it could have been much, much worse.
And now, there is a wonderful bronze statue of Meredith commemorating a moment in time where the world changed.
In his recent book, A Mission from God, Meredith writes, “I wanted to administer a sudden psychological blow that would drive a stake through the heart of one of the most powerful and destructive beasts in the American soul—the poisonous idea that any group of Americans was superior to any other group of Americans.” He said he knew “it was time.”
Now, more than 40 years later, Ole Miss continues, step by step, to come to terms with the State’s long history of racism and its future as a world-class center for learning and racial harmony. I graduated from Ole Miss in 1981—a little less than 20 years after Meredith’s fateful walk into the Lyceum—but what I experienced was tolerance and a determined effort to build a better future.
But this is not a blog about racism.
As I listened to the news on NPR describing the arguments before the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of California’s ban on gay marriage, and the arguments against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), it was clear to me that we are coming to another crucial developmental crossroads.
It is not my goal to summarize the arguments for extending the legitimacy of sanctioned marriage to gay people; the media and the pundits do a fine job of that. Nor is it my intent to make the historical connection between the injustices of the Jim Crow South and the bias against LGBT people; that would be too easy.
My goal is to say to Generation Y and Gen X, yes this is your time. You are the cavalry and we need you to ride over the hill and save the day.
When I talk with young people (for me that is people less than 35) most of them don’t get what the fuss is about. They have gay friends. They work with gay people. Some are religious—but they don’t see another person’s lifestyle as threatening to their faith. They seem to know that parenting is an act of love—not gender identification. They actually are measuring people by the content of their character—and not the color of their skin or their choice for a life partner.
I am sure you know exceptions. There are certainly Gen X and Gen Y who express homophobia, bigotry, fear, and confusion—but even with them it seems more a fear of change than a desire to socially isolate or penalize gay people.
For heaven’s sake let’s look to those men and women who are considered by most everyone in the red and blue states to be heroes; our military. It took a long time and there was plenty of study and controversy, but the ending of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” has been a non-event; unless you are a gay person in the military, in which case the change has been transformative and revitalizing. And who serves in the military? You guessed it, young people. One young service man on a plane summed it up nicely, “It was no big deal.”
There is a moment in every generation when people become aware of their influence and their shared values. Nowadays that moment is all the more explicit with the aid of social media. Facebook is awash in the red equal sign that has become the icon of support for gay marriage equality. And let’s make no mistake, this is about equality. It is about the notion that some kinds of loving relationships are more privileged than others; that some families are toxic just because they don’t fit the 1950’s image of a traditional American family.
I was always a fan on the John Meyer song, “Waiting for the World to Change.” In the song Mayer laments for his generation, “It’s not that we don’t care we just know that the fight ain’t fair, so we keep waiting, waiting for the world to change.” Well guess what, this is it. This is the moment. This is the signal. This is one of the first big issues that you can change, right now. The statistics for support for gay marriage equality in Gen X and Gen Y are almost double that of boomers—with (conservatively) 80% percent in support.
Come on my young friends. Get up. Stand up. Stand up for what’s right. It is time.