Annie May Johnson grew up next to the tobacco field her parents worked in Lillington, North Carolina. At 75 years old, Johnson long held the belief that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman, no matter the times. That’s what her parents taught her years ago, and it’s what the good Rev. Mosley preached each Sunday morning at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church during her childhood.
Johnson never believed her view on the issue would waver. But that all changed on Wednesday, when President Obama announced publicly that he was in favor of same-sex marriage, a change from his 2008 campaign stand. Saying his beliefs had evolved from his support of civil unions instead of same-sex marriages, Obama sent ripples through the country and caused Annie May Johnson to take a second look at an issue she thought she’d decided on long ago.
“I always saw marriage as a man and a woman being together for a lifetime,’’ says Johnson, on the phone from her North Carolina home. “That’s all I ever saw growing up, and that is all my parents saw in their day. But when Obama said he now was in favor of it, I thought maybe I’ve been too pigheaded about this thing for too long.’’
Johnson is like many older, deeply religious blacks in this country—women in particular—who attend church each Sunday, tithe 10 percent of their income without fail to their religious institution of choice, and try as best they can to live life by the letter of the Bible.
She’s also among many in the black community who believe in giving the first African-American president the benefit of the doubt on controversial political issues, even if his view is worlds apart from their own way of thinking.
“He’s smart, that’s why I voted for him,’’ Johnson says. ‘’So why wouldn’t I listen to what he has to say and listen to all of it. The right may not do that, but I do.’’
For years, reports have shown a great divide in the opinions of African Americans on efforts to legalize gay marriage, versus those of other races. A 2008 Pew poll showed that nearly 67 percent of blacks were not in favor of same-sex couples marrying. Those high numbers, especially when compared to the attitudes of other races, helped feed the belief that feelings of homophobia are much more of a problem in African-American communities, where many of the country’s top black ministers use their pulpits to rail against the “homosexual lifestyle.”
One such minister is Atlanta’s Bishop Eddie Long. Long was the black Christian community’s most outspoken voice of the anti-gay movement. In 2004, he famously organized a march of his church members to support an amendment to Georgia’s state constitution that would ban gay marriage.
Atlanta and the black Christian community as a whole were shocked when, in 2010, three civil lawsuits were filed against Bishop Long in Dekalb County court. The charges alleged that Long had used his “spiritual authority’’ to coerce male church members into engaging in sexual acts and relationships for his own personal and sexual gratification. Long settled the lawsuits.
“That incident alone was heard throughout the black Christian community everywhere in this country,’’ says Lehigh University professor of Africana Studies James Peterson. “Blacks who had been listening to pastors like Long espouse anti-gay talk began to question the real message behind what they were saying. The Eddie Long situation went a long way in changing the minds of people of color, because they saw the hypocrisy of some of the preachers they’d been listening to.’’
The most recent Pew poll taken this past April showed only 47 percent of African Americans oppose gay marriage today, nearly 20 percentage points lower than in 2008.
Petersen believes attitudes among blacks will continue to evolve with Obama’s well-publicized support of gay marriage. He also thinks the president’ decision will have little impact on the black vote in November. And while 47 percent of the community may be against same-sex marriage, even more feel disconnected from Mitt Romney and his message, he notes. "Let’s face it, Obama probably won't enact any policy towards this before he's elected. And by next month, some other big topic will be in the news. This won't even be a talking point in November. And even if it is, black people have more to worry about and this isn't it," Petersen says.
“This isn’t a wedge issue for blacks with Obama, no matter how much the media would like it to be,’’ Petersen adds. “At the end of the day, blacks aren’t confused about what candidate is best for them. I think many blacks knew he was leaning this way anyway and weren’t particularly surprised.’’
Lamont Jacobs certainly wasn’t. The 67-year-old former truck driver says Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage mirrors his own slow turn toward totally understanding the issue.
“My grandson is gay and of course me and my wife love him to death, but it was hard to accept at first,’’ says the Long Beach, Calif., native, while getting his hair cut in South Central Los Angeles. “I didn’t understand why he wanted to be with or marry another man. I just didn’t. I told him that wasn’t a real marriage. But over time, my wife and I learned to accept it and be at peace with it. Who are we to deny him happiness? President Obama just came to that same decision, and I respect him for it.’’