Still standing up for rights, respect

Civil rights marcher sues for gay marriage

November 28, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

On his first trip as a civil rights activist, Charles Blackburn already knew the rules: Disconnect the lights in your car so you're not an easy target for snipers. Drive down the center of the road to make it harder to be run off the side. Stick to the black neighborhoods whenever possible.

A white Unitarian minister, he was headed from his home in Huntsville, Ala., to McComb, Miss., where a string of bombings had devastated black homes and churches. It was October 1964. Nine white men arrested in the bombings had just been released.

"I knew what the violence was and that these people were out on the street," Blackburn says. But he made the lonely trip all the same, arriving at a bus station where he was met with a sea of white faces. "I knew what was in my heart, and I knew what I believed. And if they had known this, my life would have been worth very little to them."

He carried another secret in that bus station, and in his years fighting for civil rights in the South: He was gay. It was a secret he would keep for 10 more years, until 1974, when he separated from his wife and moved to Baltimore.

Now, four decades after risking his life in a civil rights struggle for others, Blackburn, 73, says it is time to fight for himself. Along with his partner of 28 years, Glen Dehn, he is a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to expand marriage to gay and lesbian couples in Maryland. Blackburn is a bridge between the two movements, a man with a creased face and thinning hair who knows what it means to stand up, and why it is essential.

The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, will hear the case Monday. Blackburn's campaigns for equal rights have taken him to courthouses before: In 1964 he was thrown into a jail cell crawling with cockroaches and bedbugs for trying to help an elderly black couple register to vote.

In the next few years, as Blackburn crisscrossed Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, he would be targeted with rocks and obscene phone calls. Once, someone attempted to burn a cross on his front lawn. On another occasion, he was spirited out of Shreveport, La., in a private plane after he learned the sheriff was waiting at the public airport to arrest him.

"He was brave and courageous," says Evelyn Falkowski, 81, who was a member of Blackburn's church at the time and now lives in Rockville. "Anybody that took a stand for civil rights in those days was taking some risk. I admired him."

Talking one recent afternoon in the 19th-century Bolton Hill townhouse he shares with Dehn, Blackburn drew parallels between the two rights movements that have bracketed his life and the opposition he faced then and now.

As in the 1960s, he says, half-measures will not do. He wants full marriage rights for same-sex couples, not civil unions that seek to duplicate marriage without using the actual word.

"It's just like the old argument of separate but equal facilities for blacks," he says. "They weren't, they never will be and they never could be. And it's the same. It's the same."

Back into the closet

As the son of a Methodist minister in Florida, Blackburn's early experience with black people was limited to yardmen, washwomen and church sextons. His parents were not activists, but they showed a respect and concern for others that took hold in Blackburn.

He also had a personal interest in the rights of minorities. When he moved to Washington in 1954 to attend American University, he quietly came out as a gay man. But his experience at gay clubs was so traumatizing that he quickly retreated.

"It was horrendous," he says. "You never gave your last name. You never said where you worked. I ran back to the closet and stayed there for 17 years."

In 1957, he married a woman he had met while he was a military police officer in Fort Gordon, Ga. She was a contestant for Miss South Carolina and a music teacher. They moved to Berkeley, Calif., where Blackburn enrolled in a Unitarian seminary.

After his ordination, he took a job as minister of a church in nearby Hayward. Married and with an infant daughter, he was content, if not fulfilled. It was the early '60s, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and he yearned to be a part of it.

"It started the thought process that if anyone should be part of this in the South, two Southerners should be," he says of himself and his wife.

A new Unitarian church was forming in Huntsville, Ala., and Blackburn didn't hesitate. He was soon called to Magnolia, Miss., to help register black voters. He escorted a 94-year-old Baptist minister and his 80-year-old wife to the county courthouse, where they were arrested for trespassing.

He was thrown in jail along with 16 other ministers and rabbis who were there doing the same work, newspaper records show. Fed stale cornbread, fatback and rubbery grits, the group decided to fast. It was not, Blackburn says, a hard decision. They were held 48 hours before mounting public pressure forced the sheriff to release them and drop all charges.

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