Tube City Almanac

January 19, 2009

Mon Valley Pride and Prejudice

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

Pittsburgh Courier photo

Twelve-thousand people came to Forbes Field on Sunday, July 9, 1961 ... not to root for the defending World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, but to see the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King spoke at a "freedom jubilee" sponsored by the Central Baptist Church and which also included Count Basie and His Orchestra.

During the summer of 1961, "Freedom Riders" were campaigning against segregated public transportation in the South. Other activists were defying laws that banned interracial marriage in 16 states (including West Virginia), or trying to overturn poll taxes that kept many black voters from the ballot box.

Some people said it was too much change, too fast. At Forbes Field, Dr. King answered them, telling the crowd that "the clock of destiny (was) ticking out" for the United States.

"If America is to remain a first-class nation, she can no longer have second-class citizens," he said. "Gradualism is no more than 'do-nothing' ism, which ends up in 'stand-still' ism."

Sure, anyone who says prejudice has been eliminated is dreaming. But we've still come a long way since 1961.

. . .

On the other hand, we have a long, long way yet to go. Over the weekend, the Post-Gazette reprinted one of the "Harper's Index" tables from Harper's Magazine, which noted that 39 percent of Americans think that Muslims should be forced to carry special ID cards.

And then there was the hearing before Allegheny County Council last week to debate the creation of a Human Relations Commission. West Mifflin Democrat Bob Macey, who represents much of the Mon-Yough area, was one of the original co-sponsors of the legislation.

He has since withdrawn his support, telling Pat Cloonan of The Daily News that he's "against discrimination in all forms" but that the legislation "has legs of its own and it is becoming too much of a controversial thing."

. . .

Although Macey didn't say what parts of the legislation have become "controversial," it's well known that the American Family Association is lobbying hot and heavy (you'll pardon the phrase) against the bill because it would protect gays, lesbians and the transgendered from housing and employment discrimination.

Indeed, several members of the clergy condemned those parts of the bill during the council hearing.

Maybe I'm adding two and two and getting five, but it's hard not to conclude that Macey pulled his support under pressure from Mon-Yough residents and their pastors.

(Swissvale Democrat Chuck Martoni, who represents the upper Mon Valley and Turtle Creek Valley, remains a co-sponsor of the legislation, as does Joan Cleary, Democrat of Brentwood, whose District 6 includes Clairton, Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills and West Elizabeth.)

. . .

Creating a "human relations commission" won't end prejudice any more than creating a hospital ends illness. It's largely symbolic.

Yes, the Allegheny County legislation would allow a judge to levy a fine of up to $50,000 against landlords and employers convicted of discrimination. But some discriminatory practices are already prohibited by laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act, and it's likely that many violations of those rules go unnoticed or unreported.

Still, even if the county's legislation was purely symbolic, the symbolism is important, and that's what made Macey's decision so disappointing. It sent a bad message --- that in the Mon-Yough area, certain groups aren't welcome.

If anyone thinks that McKeesport and its surrounding suburbs are somehow going to recover economically while keeping "undesirables" out, we might as well just drop the bomb at the intersection of Fifth and Walnut right now.

You want to know why our young people grow up and get educated in the Mon Valley, and then flee as soon as they can? Maybe it's the attitudes they hear expressed around them.

. . .

Some people are reluctant to compare the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians to the civil rights battles still being waged by African-Americans.

And there are some very important and unsubtle differences in the scope and degree of discrimination that people of color have faced.

For instance, there aren't many gay white people who have been followed around in department stores by clerks worried that they might steal something.

Lesbians were never banned from the Kennywood Park swimming pool or the G.C. Murphy Co. restaurant in McKeesport. People don't move out of neighborhoods because a gay couple buys a house there.

. . .

Pittsburgh Courier photoYet if you accept the mountain of scientific evidence that suggests that sexual orientation is a function of genetics --- that people don't choose their sex or gender preferences any more than they choose skin color, eye color, height or allergies --- then it's hard to justify not extending civil-rights protections to all people regardless of race, color, creed, religion or sexual orientation.

Most of the people who object to civil rights protection for gays, lesbians and the transgendered justify their actions by pointing to certain Bible verses --- specifically Leviticus and the epistles of Saint Paul.

Back in the 19th century, slave owners justified oppression of blacks the same way.

In his letter to the Ephesians, for example, Paul tells slaves to "be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ." In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges servants to "regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed."

(It's not just Paul, of course. In the Old Testament, Chapter 21 of Exodus gives specific instructions for the ownership of slaves.)

I could go on, but you get the point.

. . .

As someone with the middle name "Paul," who graduated from high school in St. Paul's Cathedral, I don't lightly question the writings of an apostle.

But I can't morally and ethically defend discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation any more than I could defend slavery.

In another local speech --- this one at the University of Pittsburgh in November 1966 --- Dr. King said the fight against prejudice wasn't one of "white versus black."

America, he said, "has pitted too often black poor against white poor," exploiting fear to turn "winters of delay into summers of violence."

. . .

In a region racked with poverty (about 20 percent in the city and Clairton, more than 20 percent in Homestead, and above 30 percent in Duquesne), we still need to stop pitting "black poor against white poor."

We've got too many poor people --- period --- and too many people who blame one ethnic group or another instead of pulling together. (The tensions came to the surface around here in some pretty ugly ways during the presidential election.)

But we also need to stop pitting Christians versus Muslims, believers versus non-believers and straights versus gays.

. . .

I don't know what Dr. King would think about extending equal rights to gays, lesbians and the transgendered. The research into sexual and gender preferences was pretty primitive in 1968, when King was slain.

Even his family is divided on the issue; his daughter, Bernice, helped lead a march supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage even as her mother (King's widow) was denouncing them.

Dr. King --- who had forgotten more theology than I'll ever know --- would likely have struggled with the Bible passages that seem to condemn homosexuality. Yet because he also took very brave stands against the Vietnam war, the draft and oppression of all kinds, I suspect he would have sided with anyone whose rights were being suppressed.

. . .

This day that honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a good day to remember that no one --- black, white, mixed-race, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, non-believer --- deserves to be treated as a "second-class citizen" in a first-class nation, and not in the Mon Valley, either, if we ever want to be a "first-class region" again.

. . .

Remarks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Forbes Field on July 9, 1961, as reported in the Pittsburgh Courier:

The clock of destiny is ticking out. If America is to remain a first-class nation, then she can no longer have second-class citizens. Gradualism is no more than "do-nothing-ism," which ends up in "stand-still-ism."

There is a new determination to be free. The student movement has taken our yearnings for freedom and fashioned them into a creative protest.

The "Freedom Riders" have come to prove to the nation that Negroes are willing to suffer in order to win that special something called "freedom."

One hundred forty-six cities have desegregated their public facilities, and this is nothing more than revolutionary. The Negro can now ride through the South without facing humiliation. These movements reveal that the Negro is eternally through with segregation.

Segregation is evil! Only 7 percent of the schools in the South have been desegregated since the United States Supreme Court decision in 1954.

At this rate it will take 93 more years before we are free, and we will not wait that long. Segregation is slavery covered with the niceties of complexity.

The Negro has a new sense of dignity. Something happened to him when better transportation and two world wars occurred. He took a new look at himself.

We are not seeking to defeat socially or dominate politically --- we just want to be free.

Some say, "I've been down so long that down don't bother me." Others rise up in hatred. A much better and more creative way open to Negroes is non-violence.

(But) we cannot "cool-off." We love America too much to slow up. We must free her of this dilemma. Racism and colonialism must go!

The clock of destiny is ticking out. If America is to remain a first-class nation, she can no longer have second-class citizens. And in the words of the movement's theme song, "We Shall Overcome."

(Source: Julia Moore, "'U.S. Cannot Remain a First-Class Nation and Have Second-Class Citizens,' --- Dr. King," Pittsburgh Courier, July 15, 1961, p. 3.)

Your Comments are Welcome!

Jason, thanks for this wonderful commentary. As someone born and educated in the Mon Valley but now living in Pittsburgh, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge what the hometown pulse is. Mr. Macey’s decision was disappointing, especially when considering that the AFA chapter leading the effort against the bill is based in Venango County. So I guess that the weak-kneed councilors now dropping their support are more easily swayed by non-residents.

I would like to paraphrase one of your comments. As someone with the first name “Paul,” who graduated from Serra High School, I highly question the writings of an apostle. But those are my beliefs, not yours nor your readers. I do not know what life is like for young gays & lesbians in the Mon Valley these days, but I can tell you what it was like for me in the ’80s. I not only had to stay closeted but also had to deny who I was – a person I wouldn’t accept until graduating from university. When I came out to my best friend in high school many years later (and this was a Catholic high school, remember) he told me two things I expected to hear:

“You know that if you would have come out while we were in school, I probably would have had to end our friendship. And if others found out, you probably would have been beaten to a pulp. Or worse.”

And he was right. But that was a different time, and it was easy to understand. I just hope that things are different – and better – for young people struggling with who they are at Serra, MHS, SA or anywhere else in the Mon Valley. And I hope that County Council realizes that this bill is the right thing to do.
PaulK - January 19, 2009

Thanks for this Jason. Since I don’t live in Allegheny County, I wasn’t aware of the Human Relations Commission bill. But the situation surrounding it isn’t that different from other anti-gay movements happening all over the country. It’s frankly sad that in this day and age, anyone is discriminated against. As you mention, the bible has been used for thousands of years to justify and institutionalize these patterns of behavior. I’m not a religious scholar by any means either, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus himself would likely be marching for the oppressed.
Dan - January 20, 2009

Have you ever checked out what ol’ Leviticus had to say about shellfish? If so, the road to Christian hell heads past Red Lobster.
Yer Ol' Boss - January 20, 2009

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