The Rev. Jesse Jackson on Thursday praised President Obama's decision to support same-sex marriage, comparing the battle for such unions to the fight against slavery and anti-miscegenation laws intended to keep blacks and other ethnicities from mingling and marrying with whites.
"This is a bold step in the right direction for equal protection under the law for all citizens," Jackson told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday morning. But, he said, he wished the president had gone further, pushing for federal protection for all citizens instead of leaving the controversial issue of gay marriage up to the states to decide.
If other hard-won civil rights battles had been left up to the states, Jackson said, African Americans would have been on the losing end of those battles.
"If the states had to vote on slavery, we would have lost the vote," Jackson said. "If we had to vote on the right [for blacks] to vote, we would have lost that vote."
His statement comes as a growing number of African American leaders and civil right activists are stepping forward to voice their support for same-sex marriage. Their positions are significant because there is a stronghold of opposition to same-sex marriage within African American communities. This week alone, African Americans voters were instrumental to passing North Carolina's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Acknowledging that gap, Jackson called on religious leaders nationwide to address the issue with their congregations.
Jackson said gays and lesbians are among the ranks of soldiers dying for their country, the teachers educating the nation's children and even the pastors guiding parishioners through the Bible. It's time to reward gays and lesbians with equal protection, he said.
He urged opponents to remember that same-sex marriage isn't about taking rights away from anyone else, but rather extending those rights to all. He also recalled a painful time in America's not-too-distant past when African American men in the South faced swift punishment or even death if they tried to date a white woman, even as white men boldly dated across racial lines.
With such history in the rear-view mirror, Jackson said, it's time to stop dictating the actions of others.
"You may choose your mate, but you cannot deny someone else the right to choose their mate," he said. "The law protects you from being abused. It doesn't threaten your lifestyle for someone else to have the right to exhibit their lifestyle," he later added.
Other African-American leaders were also vocal this week in their support for gay marriage, joining Jackson in reframing the issue as one of civil rights.
"I salute President Obama’s statement today supporting same-sex marriage," the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement that went on to add: "This is not about mine or anyone’s personal or religious views. It is about equal rights for all. We cannot be selective with civil rights. We must support civil rights for everybody or we don’t support them for anyone."
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC Wednesday to lend an impassioned voice in support of gay marriage rights.
And, earlier in the day, the social media savvy leader tweeted: "Historic day for justice and equality. Our United States President Obama endorses marriage equality. I rejoice in this announcement."