Letter from the US: Supreme Court rules step forwards, leap backwards

July 8, 2013

A recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court represents a big step forward, while another represents a leap backward. Both passed by a five-to-four vote.

First the good news. The Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as a right of only heterosexual couples. DOMA was passed by Congress and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996.

It also declined to rule against a lower court that found unconstitutional a California law, passed by referendum in 2008, which outlawed same-sex marriage. This opened the door for same-sex marriages to resume in the state.

There has been an immediate and huge flocking by same-sex couples to city halls throughout California to exercise their rights, in joyous ceremonies and celebrations.

Gay Pride demonstrations in California and other states on June 30 turned into huge celebrations.

DOMA had been used to bar couples in same-sex marriages, in states that had legalised them, from receiving federal benefits that heterosexual married couples enjoyed. These were many and often material, such as spousal social security and tax benefits.

It was this discrepancy that the Court ruled unconstitutional. The Court did not rule that laws in states that bar same-sex marriages are unconstitutional, however. This meant it fell short of a sweeping legal victory.

Nevertheless, the tide has turned. Now it is the anti-gay bigots who are on the defensive.

As it stands now, there are 13 states (including California) and Washington DC where same-sex marriages are legal. The fight now shifts to the remaining states. There will be all kinds of legal complications resulting from the different laws in different states.

These struggles will continue, but the Court’s decision has a wider impact. All aspects of discrimination against and oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people can now be attacked.

Mass action

This victory was not made possible by “five wise men and women”. In fact, they are only “wise” in the best interests of the ruling class. They do, however, respond to political changes, causing them to shift positions.

What made this decision possible was the gay liberation movement, which has widened over time to include other people oppressed because of their sexuality.

We can mark the movement's start with the resistance put up by gay men and lesbians at the Stonewall bar in 1969 against the frequent gay bashings by New York police.

This new movement did have precedents in earlier struggles, but it grew out of the youth radicalisation of the ’60s and the new wave of feminism.

That was when the gay pride demonstrations began.

Another manifestation was the rise of Act Up with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which first appeared among gay men. This was an important fight to demand government action against the disease, and mobilised gays into militant mass action.

By their own mass actions, gays, lesbians and others became publicly visible. The idea that you could fight back, and not just be relegated to the closet and second-class citizenship, began to take hold. The “fairies” and “dykes” were no longer just objects of ridicule, but in-your-face fighters.

As the movement developed, more and more people “came out”. The cumulative effect was that more straight people began to realise that many of their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters, their friends and coworkers were LGBTI.

Attitudes began to change. Even arch-reactionaries and creeps like former vice-president Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, were affected.

Partial victories for equal rights did not result in the dire predictions made by the church and other bigots of the breakdown of society.

Now a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, and a greater majority support equal rights in general. That’s what won this victory.

Voting Rights Act defeat

In the second ruling, the Court struck down one of most important legal victories of the ’60s — the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That victory was made possible by the huge mobilisations of Blacks and their supporters in the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow south and the mass Black liberation movement in the country as a whole.

All major Black and civil liberties groups denounced the ruling. Even President Barack Obama said he was “disappointed”.

The immediate struggle that preceded the Voting Rights Act was the 1965 marches for Black voting rights in Alabama. The first march began in Selma, and was intended to go to the state capital, Montgomery.

Alabama Governor George Wallace, a notorious racist, called out the state troopers, who were joined by white thugs organised by the local sheriff and armed with whips. These forces stopped the non-violent march in a bloody attack that left many injured.

John Lewis, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), suffered a fractured skull.

The attack was televised, and Americans were stunned by the violence. A second march was planned, which President Lyndon Johnson sought to ban. But when the organisers would not back down, Johnson relented and sent federal troops to protect marchers.

Under mass pressure throughout the country, Congress responded by passing the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed.

The historical background goes back to the Civil War, when the “slavocracy” was defeated and the former slaves were granted citizenship and Black males the right to vote.

The “compromise” of 1877 between the federal government and white southern capitalists and landowners marked a turning point in taking away Blacks’ right to vote. This was the establishment of the system of racial oppression known as Jim Crow, which used mass anti-Black terror throughout the former Confederacy in the south.

The fight for the right to vote was one of the main demands of the new civil rights movement that emerged in the mid-’50s. Many bloody struggles culminated in Selma and the Voting Rights Act.

This short sketch explains why the key section of the act was federal oversight of voting rights in the Jim Crow states. Voting rights for Blacks there could only be established by outside force. It was this key provision that the Supreme Court threw out.


The majority of the Court claimed that the south had reformed, and there now is no need for federal oversight of these states’ voting procedures. This is part of claims that the US is now a “colour-blind” society.

The great Black struggle of the ’60s did bring major changes in the US, but institutional racism still pervades society. This can be seen by every social measurement from unemployment, poverty, education, health, persistent housing segregation, levels of imprisonment and more.

Moreover, the white south has always resented the federal oversight of voting rights and other victories of the civil rights movement. This is one source of the right-wing’s objection to “big government.” There have been persistent attempts to attack Black voting rights, not only in the south but in other states too.

This was dramatically seen in last year's elections. There were all kinds of attempts through laws and outright restrictions on the availability of polling places and machines in Black neighbourhoods, forcing Blacks to wait in long lines to vote, sometimes for 10 to 12 hours.

In some states, there were also attempts to limit voting rights of Latinos.

Within 48 hours of the Court’s striking down the Voting Rights Act, six states immediately took moves to restrict voting rights.

In Texas, a strict voter identification law and redistricting plan designed to limit Black voting rights was blocked last year by the Department of Justice. Now, they will go into effect.

Similar voter ID schemes in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and Virginia will proceed.

Obama says it is now up to Congress to fix the situation — within the framework of the Supreme Court’s ruling. That is a joke.

What is needed is a new fightback by Blacks and all who support democracy to defeat this new assault on Black rights.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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