To the dismay of many socially conservative members of the nation's oldest civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is reaching out to gay and lesbian rights organizations. Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP's dynamic young president who is helping to lead a march on the Washington Mall next month, insists that joining forces with gay rights advocates is wholly in keeping with the NAACP's century-old commitment to equal justice for all people.
Mr. Jealous, 37, and NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock, 44, are the youngest leaders ever to hold the organization's two top spots, and they epitomize a younger generation of activists who are more comfortable with the idea of gay rights as civil rights than are many of their elders. Backed by former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, they have begun to gradually expand the group's historic focus on social justice to include the gay rights movement, which itself is patterned on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. Mr. Jealous has made it clear that the NAACP remains opposed to all forms of discrimination and that the outreach to gay and lesbian organizations is part of that mission.
Nevertheless, making common cause with gay and lesbian activists is bound to provoke resistance among the NAACP's base of supporters in the black church, which traditionally has been more socially conservative on such issues as gay marriage. Mr. Jealous and Ms. Brock will need all their skills of diplomacy to persuade these members that a more expansive conception of social justice that includes gays and lesbians not only reflects no departure from the NAACP's historic mission but in fact continues it into the challenges of the contemporary era. They might also remind skeptics that African-American gays and lesbians face a double form of discrimination that deprives them of the basic civil rights protections of equal justice under the law.
That's nowhere more evident than in the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which forces gays and lesbians to lie about who they are in order to serve their country. The arguments today against allowing gays to serve openly in the military are eerily reminiscent of those more than 60 years ago that insisted allowing blacks to serve alongside white soldiers would damage military discipline and morale. The NAACP hailed President Harry S. Truman's 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces as a giant step forward for equal rights. For today's NAACP to work toward repealing "don't ask, don't tell" would be a comparable blow for justice in the treatment of black gays and lesbians in uniform.
We're under no illusion that any of this will be easy or quick. Mr. Jealous will journey to New York this week to encourage members of the city's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center to take part in the planned "One Nation" rally in Washington in October. But he frankly acknowledges that the NAACP's internal debate over gay marriage may take many years to resolve. In the meantime, the group is already laying the groundwork for a broader civil rights agenda; at its annual convention last year, the membership agreed to form a gay rights equality task force charged with looking into such issues as hate crimes against gays, school bullying and HIV/AIDS. Though the changes may be gradual and somewhat tentative at first, this is definitely not your father's NAACP.
Like the protracted struggle that secured African-American civil rights in the mid-20th century, the fight for equal treatment of gays and lesbians won't be won overnight. Yet it's heartening to see the nation's oldest civil rights group take up this challenge. May it press on until, in the words of Martin Luther King, "justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."