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Valentine Road at Civil Rights Movement's Birthplace

Earlier this week I was privileged to witness a truly remarkable event that ignited a spark of hope within my inner essence. HBO and Hollywood came to Montgomery, Alabama, for their premiere of VALENTINE ROAD. The festivities began with a reception at the Cloverdale Playhouse. Although technically Fall by the calendar, our sweltering Southern heat was accompanied by breezes of gentle relief. Behind ivy covered walls and under the canopy of a rubber tree, masses of racial and economically diverse peoples comfortably interacted -- an event legally not permitted in this area not too long ago. In fact, until most recently (2001 and even then with strong opposition), the Alabama Constitution did not recognize marriage between a white and black person. This intermingling, within itself, was proof that things had changed.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) staff never disappoints me. These guys are so "down home" and casual, they make you feel that way as well. Morris Dees (founder SPLC), Richard Cohen (President SPLC), and Mark Potok (Senior Fellow SPLC), if you did not know them, come off as "average Joes," which I think is of great benefit as their demeanor and style combat negative allegations of being "elite" and "removed" from the individuals and classes SPLC is designed to help. It is a gift being able to relate to both the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor and actually fitting into both those categories.

Film producer and director Marta Cunningham was easy to locate. Her elegance and grace radiated "Hollywood." The white dress she had chosen highlighted her olive skin, a tone which lily-whites seriously covet and spend hours on the beach and in tanning salons to achieve. Her necklace and jewels perfectly framed her face while her gold heels showcased the fine toned legs of a professional dancer. All this, however, was overshadowed by her genuineness as a caring and compassionate human being. One could almost hear the melodious voice of Alabama native Jim Nabors exclaim "Shazam," as he did so many times on his Hollywood set.

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Earlier in the day the SPLC crew gave the HBO guests a historical tour of Montgomery, the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King's church, on Dexter Avenue which he pastored from 1954-1960, is between the SPLC headquarters and the state capitol building.

Just north, in Birmingham at the 16 th Street Baptist Church on 15 September 1963, white supremacists exploded a bomb that killed teen agers Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. Herman Frank Cash died without ever being prosecuted for his actions. In 1977, Robert Chambliss at age 73 was finally convicted of the murders. Later in 2000, Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton were finally brought to justice.

After the celebrated Selma to Montgomery march 25 March 1965, Viola Liuzzo was gunned down by white supremacists. By many locals she was discounted as a "Communist outside agitator" who had no business in Alabama.

We have a long history of "religious" misinformation that serves as a natural fuel source for the ignorant. When I was a child in Montgomery, I was forced to attend Sunday school and church where week after week I would hear things I did not understand regarding the black community. Yet in Sunday school we would sing: "Red and yellow/black and white/they are precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world." This greatly disturbed me as I could not understand how "God" would want anyone, especially me, to hate a certain race or class of people. The pastor explained to me that it was true Jesus loved all children but "unfortunately black children grew up to be 'niggers' and God did not like that..." My next question was, I thought logical, "If black people are not perfect and they were created by God; then is God not perfect?" That got me a beating under the "spare the rod spoil the child" scripture as apparently God approves of child abuse when religious authority cannot produce answers to simple questions.

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Before the Inquisitions and beyond 9-11, religion has caused more misery on this planet than any other collective source. In this area I have personally witnessed "religion" as the basis of hate and discrimination against Jews, Catholics, blacks, outsiders, Communists, labor organizers, those on public assistance-excluding corporations, and the LGBT community.

Leviticus 18:22 condemns acts of homosexuality; Leviticus 20:13 apparently approved a death sentence for all homosexuals. How many times have I heard Christians state one can "never add" or "never subtract" anything from the Bible; yet these same self-righteous terrorist eat pork and catfish-also forbidden in the Old Testament. Straight people who fornicate with many different partners and commit adultery are expected to be forgiven. They are "saved" by the Grace of Jesus which I find rather strange as the Old Testament does not recognize Jesus as "the Son of God" or as any religious figure for that matter.

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In 1978 I was in San Francisco when Dan White murdered gay activist Harvey Milk. The defense alleged White "ate too many Twinkies" and somehow the Twinkie sugar created 'diminished capacity' which the jury bought into allowing him to receive a reduced sentence.

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On 12 October 1998 Matthew Wayne Shepard was tortured and murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson who presented a "gay panic" defense in the hope it would excuse them from their criminal acts. Although each would be convicted of murder, it was Shepard's compassionate parents that requested their son's cold blooded killers be spared the death penalty. Shepard's funeral was attended by "Rev." Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church sporting signs that read: "Fag Matt in Hell," "No Tears for Queers," and "God Hates Fags."

Marta Cunningham's work cannot be considered pro-gay because it is pro-human rights. Larry King was a small, non-violent, somewhat confused young boy whose transgender status was a threat to a much larger and powerful Brandon McInerney who concluded the only way to deal with this issue was to shoot King in the back of the head. As horrible as this violent crime was, McInerney amassed wide community and religious support. Through the progression of our nation's history we have always had a group, segment, or class of people to serve as a "whipping boy" or "scapegoat" for ills we seem to have no control over. Apparently during this point in history, that group of people is the LGBT community. Marta forces us to look at this in a very professional non-biased manner.

Following the preview, at the historical Capri Theatre near picturesque Huntingdon College, during the panel discussion, Rhonda Thomason, chief operations officer for the Welcoming Schools project in the Southern Region, stated it was important to get "faith leaders...on board (as many school districts simply will not address this issue)..." "To give permission" for this tolerance program to be taught. I respect Ms. Thomason's credentials and experience but could not disagree more. These people are part of the problem; we need to find a way to work around them.

"Men of the Cloth" consistently preach anti-gay sermons with feet of clay. Warren Jeffs, self proclaimed Mormon "prophet" in 2011 was convicted of raping two children, a 12 and 15 year old girl. It is not unusual for church officials, including the demigod televangelist, to be caught in situations involving various sexual misconduct issues then deflecting any personal responsibility by blaming their actions on "the devil" and demanding immediate forgiveness and the continuation of gifts and tithes. In the United States alone, over 3000 civil suits have been brought against Catholic priests for child molestations. When activists as Sinead Marie Bernadette O'Connor campaigned against such injustices, she-not the priests-became the target. When was the last time church bureaucrats condemned heterosexual misconduct or molestation of children by any clergy?

Marta, the SPLC, and the HBO network should be commended for raising our awareness regarding this issue. The True Teaching of Jesus, I believe, is "Love your neighbor as thy self." I think if more of us did that, there would be fewer problems in the world. If we could focus on making ourselves better human beings, we would have less time to spew hateful rhetoric directed at others.

james rhodes

James Rhodes

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Photos courtesy of HBO