We have been here before to the Mississippi bottom-land of discrimination in the name of religion and "moral conviction". Having just passed the "Religious Liberty Accommodations Act", the Mississippi House of Representatives would unleash individuals, religious organizations and private associations to use religion and "moral conviction" as subterfuge for discrimination against LGBT Mississippians in every sphere of life.
The Act is extensive and provides an out to anti-LGBT, only, wedding vendors, but also those who seek to discriminate against LGBT Mississippians in housing and employment. The Act covers discrimination in adoption and foster care, and includes state employees who "recuse" themselves from their administrative duties. Transgender individuals are simply defined out of existence. In direct contravention of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v Hodges, the bill defines sexual relations as "properly reserved" to men and women in marriage. The Act might better be named the "LGBT Civil Rights Nullification Act" protecting any organization or individual who discriminates because of a "sincerely held" belief or moral conviction about same-sex marriage. Sound familiar in Mississippi? Jim Crow lawmakers legislated their "sincerely held" religious belief. They called it the "Curse of Ham".
Yes, we have been here before---and prevailed against this animus and discrimination. In the epic "Freedom Summer" of 1964, openly gay and straight Mississippians ultimately succeeded in the face of similar public denigration and legal assault. It happened, improbably, in the small town of Holly Springs on the campus of the historically all-black Rust College.
Dr. Earnest A. Smith, Rust's President, was "the coolest dude in the room" in 1964 when he allowed Rust's student leaders, national civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and openly homosexual African American faculty members to converge on the Rust campus. They came to organize and register African American voters, according to Les McLemore, 75, who was the Rust Student Council President.
Mississippi responded to Dr. Smith's bold move with a vicious sexual investigation conducted by the state's "Sovereignty Commission" (the Commission) which tarred and denigrated him as a suspected "queer" leading a faculty ridden with "homos".
"Dr. Smith was there, in the moment, aware of the pressure brought to bear on him," says McLemore, a former City Councilman and Acting Mayor of Jackson. "If you picked-up your cues from Ernie, he stood his ground, protecting us from the politics of it all while taking the heat. He is a forgotten hero of that summer."
The attack came like a bomb through a window, in the form of an incendiary, sexually humiliating five-page investigative report discovered and researched by the Mattachine Society of Washington and our pro bono counsel, McDermott, Will & Emery. The Commission's report was presented to Governor Paul Johnson and to Rust's Methodist Board of Trustees at their July 1, 1964 annual meeting. The report announced that Rust "had become a place for instructors who are homosexuals and racial agitators." The Commission was a state-funded, racist investigative apparatus with a public relations arm to fight integration and voter registration, and to maintain "state sovereignty" by keeping Jim Crow laws in place.
The report cited each of the "known or suspected homosexuals" by name and referred to them as morally unfit "screwballs", who supposedly entered windows by night, were fired for "homosexual activity" in their previous jobs, beaten up by crazed boy friends, attempted suicide and fought over homosexual rivals. The report besmirched English teachers and the Librarian as "oddballs and homos". Regarding Dr. Smith, the report states, "Informant No. 3 stated that Smith is a known liar and ladies' man and it has been rumored that Smith might have other queer sexual impulses." In fact, Smith was not gay. He remained happily married for 75 years to a former Rust College librarian.
The Commission report concluded that the Rust trustees were going to insist that Dr. Smith be dismissed because of his personal conduct and inability to run the college. The trustees met and made this decision regarding Dr. Smith on July 1, 1964, the day before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the purpose of abolishing legalized racism.
"We heard about it in Chapel", says former student and faculty member Frank Moorer. "We were all very sad and disconcerted about his departure." Les McLemore says Dr. Smith was "kicked upstairs" without publicity. "He clearly had to leave town, but did not reveal how or why", McLemore recalls. Dr. Smith landed in Washington, D.C. to work for the United Methodist Church where he served as Director of Human Relations for thirteen years in a kind of exile from Mississippi, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
During an interview with me, McLemore read aloud the Commission report with a combination of derision and anger. "These were all my friends!", he exclaimed. "Of course they were gay, and we all knew that back then. It was not an issue for us or Ernie....we all came from small towns in Mississippi, and we all knew gay folks. The gay faculty members were competent scholars and our friends," McLemore said. "The rightwing rednecks would figure out any way to get at Rust, and this is how low they went."
SNCC organizer Larry Rubin remembers, "We all knew Bayard Rustin was gay, and he was one of our leaders. We knew SNCC organizers who were gay. Homosexuality was not an issue to us. The bigots and segregationists had these sexual fantasies about us. The worst thing you could say about somebody besides he was a Communist was he was a queer! It had zero to do with anything we were doing."
"Smith never let them see him sweat", says McLemore. Long after the Commission racists had played out their hands and died, Smith was repeatedly honored by Rust College and invited to speak and to preach sermons many considered spellbinding orations. In his Will, Dr. Smith left Rust College his extensive library.
The investigation of Dr. Smith and Rust College is cited in the Opinion of U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves who struck down Mississippi's ban on same-sex marriage. Reeves wrote: "Any claims that Mississippians quietly accommodated gay and lesbian citizens could no longer be made in the Sixties...Segregationists called their opponents 'racial perverts' ". Reeves continued, ""Being homosexual invited scrutiny and professional consequences....the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission singled out Rust College...on reports that instructors there were 'homosexuals and racial agitators.' "
Judge Reeves got the connection between the perpetuation of the Jim Crow laws and the discrimination meted out against gay Mississippians---homophobia used for racist purposes. He wrote, "Klan propaganda tied together 'Communists, homosexuals, fornicators, liberals and angry blacks, infidels all. Mississippians opposed to integration harassed several civil rights leaders for their homosexuality." That denigration would falsely include people like Dr. Smith.
Rust College is celebrating its Sesquicentennial this year, 150 years after its founding to serve the newly freedmen and women of the South. In 1967, at its Centennial observance, soon after Dr. Smith's departure, Leontyne Price, one of the great sopranos of all time, performed a benefit concert for Rust at the desegregated Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. Price's mother was a Rust graduate. According to one account, Ms. Price lifted "her glorious voice in all its phases" bringing the audience to its feet for a ten minute ovation following her concluding number, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands".
Only this spirit of soaring unity can save Mississippi from a state legislature about to derail the state's progress out of the animus-drenched past.