Truth is, African American pastors have been engaged in the real civil rights battle for decades, fighting to end violence and respect human dignity in their communities, while largely ignored by the media. Now that their voices are speaking out on the hot button issue of marriage law, they’re getting attention. But some media seemed not to have noticed that the day they gave the story prominence was the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Oh, the irony.

On Thursday April 4th, the Chicago Tribune ran a front page, above the fold story with the headline “Black lawmakers may hold key on gay marriage in Illinois.” It was revealing, in so many ways.

The Rev. James Meeks took to the pulpit of the enormous House of Hope at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago and exhorted his congregation to make its voice heard by lawmakers who will vote on whether to allow gay marriage in Illinois.

“We’re living in a time where, here in our own state … they are about to make the law of the land that a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman. I think it’s time for the church to wake up,” Meeks, a former state senator, said on a recent Sunday.

During Illinois’ lengthy and divisive debate on same-sex marriage, perhaps no group of lawmakers has been singled out for more intensive lobbying than African-American state representatives.

With the measure a dozen votes or less shy of the 60 required for final approval, advocates on either side of the issue consider the 20 black House members key swing votes in the spring session.

The traditionally liberal black caucus, however, has not uniformly lined up in favor of gay marriage, even as home-state President Barack Obama switched course and backed it. Only one of the 14 House co-sponsors is black.

Some African-American lawmakers are uncomfortable with characterizations of gay rights as the latest front in the civil rights movement.

Yes, for good reason. Bishop Lance Davis explained on my radio show Thursday. Here’s how the Tribune article introduced and cited him:

In mid-March, the African-American Clergy Coalition formed an independent-expenditure political action committee with $3,000 from supportive ministers.

“When I saw that the lawmakers were excited about passing legislation about same-sex marriage, it’s a slap in the face of the Bible,” said the PAC’s chairman, Lance Davis, bishop of New Zion Christian Fellowship Covenant Church in Dolton. “I didn’t see that kind of enthusiasm about stopping children from killing children in the streets.”

No kidding. The media, the president for crying out loud, have made big, momentous statements with great gravity about the killing of our children in the streets of Chicago, while supporting the termination of their lives in the womb in disproportionate numbers in African-American neighborhoods. But I’ll get back to what Bishop Davis told me in a moment.

The Tribune continues…

Rev. Davis said the same-sex marriage issue “has really galvanized us” and wants the PAC to address other issues of concern to the black community, rather than support or oppose political candidates.

And that’s where the Trib article ends its quotations and citations of Bishop Davis. The rest of the rather lengthy piece cites other figures on both sides of the marriage law battle, the lobbying efforts, the hand-wringing and moral claims and Black Caucus officials in the Illinois House, where the vote is waiting for enough supporters to bring it forward.

Rep. Ken Dunkin, the Chicago Democrat who heads the House side of the black caucus, acknowledged there is heavy pressure on African-American lawmakers from preachers to oppose the same-sex marriage bill, and there is a division among black lawmakers on the issue.

“A lot of them still say that they can’t vote” for gay marriage, said Dunkin, who supports the bill.

Some lawmakers in the black caucus don’t like th use of the term “civil right” to try to link the struggle of African-Americans to that of gays and lesbians.

“For me, and I know some wouldn’t agree, I do have trouble equating it to a civil right,” said Rep. Davis, the south suburban lawmaker who is undecided.

Then the Trib piece wraps up with this quote from Rep. Greg Harris, the House sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill:

“I think the good thing is, as people make arguments pro and con whether through lobbying or the media, public opinion is breaking…Let’s have the discussion and talk about the pros and cons and debunk the myths, and people will make the decision.”

If only that were true, that in the state of Illinois the people would make the decision. But the lawmakers of the state have taken it into their hands. So the people can only make the difference by expressing their will. Which gets back to Bishop Davis and our conversation on the air Thursday.

I referred to remarks he made in this press conference of the AACC, calling the marriage battle  a “cross culture, cross faith” issue about a “very credible and very precious institution,” and “we can ill afford to put the agenda of some, of a few, in the name of civil rights, ahead of the civil rights of our children. We are known as a place for murder among our children, and for joblessness, and hopelessness…And now our legislators are trying to redefine what marriage is. It is not government’s responsibility to define what marriage really is.”

He makes great points in the press conference, which I asked him to address. Especially from this snip:

“People often say that what’s wrong in the African American communities is their families. Their families are dysfunctional. Their families are broken up. Their families are messed up. Their husbands and fathers are not there. Then help us first, get our first work right. Help us first with all of your resources and the millions of dollars that are being spent in order to promote the same-sex marriage agenda, take that money and help us to correct our communities…our social ills.”

But don’t spend it on a campaign about marriage law as a “civil rights violation, because it’s not,” he continued.

“What is a civil rights violation is to have children going to school with no books…to have unequal protection under the law… Breaking the rights of human beings has been the order of the day in the black community. And as a coalition, we are saying enough is enough. Let us make our first work our first work. Our first work is to improve the education of our children, not to approve same-sex legislation. Our first work is to make sure there are jobs and opportunities in hopeless and helpless communities. “

He elaborated on those points on my show and was eloquent in making an impassioned defense of the civil rights movement he’s fought for over the past 24 years, “dealing with the issue of poor education of our children that will lead to a life of violence.” But the media paid little or no attention. So on Friday morning, this coalition holds a press conference with Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago and other Catholic clergy to announce its staunch defense of marriage law and determined efforts to hold public officials accountable for their attention to priorities and civil rights in the most endangered communities.

Bishop Davis calls on the president, who came to political prominence in those same neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago, to listen to the voices of these communities and their pastors and put first things first.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....