RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When the NAACP endorsed same-sex marriage several weeks ago, it set off a controversy within the country's oldest civil rights group. Some local officers have resigned, including its most outspoken critic of gay marriage, the president of the Iowa and Nebraska conference. The NAACP's board says it stands by the resolution calling for marriage equality.
One criticism is that the decision came as a surprise. And as the group prepares for its national convention next month, some in the ranks say such an important decision deserved an open debate. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: When the NAACP leadership approved a resolution supporting marriage equality, the item wasn't even on the formal agenda. But Chairman Roslyn Brock says the national board of directors' conversation eventually turned to what they deemed a relevant civil rights issue, and they addressed it head-on.
ROSLYN BROCK: Clearly, this is an evolving conversation. And I believe that there are many in our organization who will still need to - or we hope will evolve to a place where they can firmly stand with us. Some may never be able to come to terms with the resolution, and that's - that's fine.
CORLEY: The resolution supports marriage equality as a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. It also commits the group to fight against any effort to write discrimination against the LGBT community into law. The state head of the NAACP in Indiana, Barbara Bolling, says debate about the resolution in her state started right away.
BARBARA BOLLING: Oh, sure. Oh sure. Right after it was announced, you know, kind of a little firestorm started.
CORLEY: Bolling said one of her branch presidents had sent out an email strongly opposing the resolution.
BOLLING: And we had a discussion. At the end of that discussion, you know, he said that, you know, certainly, he would think about it. You know, ultimately, he made the decision to resign as the president of that particular branch. It's an emotional thing. It really is.
CORLEY: So while some in the organization praised the stance, more resignations were in the works. One minister who led the NAACP chapter in Schenectady, New York, resigned. And so, too, has one of the organization's most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage - Rev. Keith Ratliff Sr.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let us vote. Let us vote.
CORLEY: During a rally at the Iowa statehouse last year, Ratliff railed against an Iowa law that allows gay marriage.
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THE REV. KEITH RATLIFF SR.: The deviant behavior is not the same thing as being denied the right to vote because of the color of one's skin. The deviant behavior is not the same thing as being denied where one may sit on a bus.
CORLEY: And Ratliff also said it was an insult for the gay community to try to align itself with the African-American struggle.
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RATLIFF: Gay community: Stop hijacking the civil rights movement.
CORLEY: In a recent interview with NPR, Ratliff said he would pray about whether to stay in the organization. This week, he resigned his post as a member of the NAACP national board, and as leader of the organization in Iowa and Nebraska.
RATLIFF: Certainly, there will be individuals who are, obviously, in support of this, and they will come along. And there will be new individuals who will join the NAACP. But historically, there is a faith base, a religious base to the NAACP. For those individuals in the religious community who feel the same way I do about this particular issue, they are already a little upset over the issue of what has taken place.
CORLEY: Ratliff says local leaders should have had more input. He predicts some NAACP members at local branches will be upset enough to write an emergency resolution, so the issue can be discussed more broadly at the NAACP's convention this summer. But chairman Roslyn Brock says marriage equality is not a new issue for the NAACP, even if its resolution did come soon after President Obama's statement of support for same-sex marriage. Brock says the group marched for gay rights in Washington in 1993. It opposed California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. As for the resolution, Brock says...
BROCK: I think it does put a dent in the perception that the African-American community is, in some way, homophobic - and not willing to engage with this community.
CORLEY: Some inside the NAACP may think the resolution goes too far. But there are those who think it's just right, and still others who say it doesn't go far enough.
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CORLEY: Recently, at a bar on Chicago's South Side, a crowd of mostly black lesbians started filling in the chairs lined up in front of a stage, getting ready for POW-WOW, a weekly poetry slam.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to all our first-time people who have never been to POW-WOW before.
CORLEY: Although some of the poets here are current or past members of the NAACP, Misty DeBerry has never joined the civil rights group. But she says she was shocked, and excited, by the national board's decision to support marriage equality.
MISTY DEBERRY: Does the NAACP, in supporting same-sex marriage, really reflect what that feels like for me, as a black woman, right now? I don't know. Maybe not. But am I appreciative that it's a public statement, and that maybe that'll get things going a little bit? Absolutely, yeah.
CORLEY: C.C. Carter is a longtime NAACP member and contributor. She says marriage equality is not high on her list of LGBT items the group could have addressed. But she calls the resolution huge, and says it will help provide armor for some gays. Carter, like Rev. Ratliff, is irritated when people compare the struggles of African-Americans to those of gays. She says it's wrong, though, for Rev. Ratliff to discount the roles of gays and lesbians in the civil rights movement. Carter points to activist Bayard Rustin, a gay, African-American man who was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
C.C. CARTER: We were so on the bus. We were so at the forefront. Bayard Rustin was at that movement. But it became a choice between your race, and your status as sexual orientation. That was a different fight. We were fighting for the rights to be for the first thing that you see about us - which is our color.
CORLEY: And while many here say the NAACP took a courageous first step, 28-year-old Anna DeShawn says she's waiting to see if the organization will address even more difficult topics when it comes to gays and lesbians.
ANNA DESHAWN: Like homophobia, you know, and the black church, and homelessness; that, I will really, truly impressed be with if they start tackling those types of issues - because they have the power to do so.
CORLEY: But any focus on gay issues for the NAACP is likely to still be same-sex marriage. For instance, in Maryland, a debate over a new law continues. But chairman Roslyn Brock says the group has many more issues to address as well, in the days and months ahead.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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