I am grateful to a man that I have never met. I was first introduced to him by a good friend. She had grown up in a place that used to be named after him. That place today is called Lucan and it is a stone’s throw away from London, Ontario. That place was once named Wilberforce and founded by freed and escaped American slaves. Those men and women who named the town Wilberforce were even more enamoured the town’s name sake than I because William Wilberforce was one of the most effective abolitionists that the British Empire had.
Given that my lineage runs through Barbados and Jamaica and my skin is as dark as most Africans, I know that somewhere along the line, my ancestors came across the Atlantic as slaves. My ancestors were the lucky ones. They survived the “middle passage”. That meant being packed below the decks, the men usually shackled together in pairs using leg irons. It meant being packed so closed together that many couldn’t get to the toilet buckets, and so lay in their own filth: filth that included more than just urine or feces because some of my ancestors or their fellow captives would have had seasickness. Below decks would have been a rich smell and tableau.
But it would not end there. For, to make matters worse, slaves would have to endure more than what has been described. While, the filth and sweat existed and was made all the worse by heat and a lack of air; my ancestors would have also had to endure the spread of diseases, fevers and viruses. If my ancestors were lucky, they only had to endure six to eight weeks of this. If they were unlucky, it could have been more than 13 weeks.
This is only a part of the reason why former slaves were so excited to found their town and call it Wilberforce. Because those former slaves knew that the average slave ship would lose between 10 to 20% of their captives due to sickness, suicide and even murder at the hands of the ships’ crew and captain. I am lucky to be here and for that I am grateful to William Wilberforce. For, he stood witness when few other people would.
Now the election of Mr. Wilberforce, in 1780, wasn’t important. While, he became an Independent Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom for the riding of Yorkshire, history only recalls his actions after he began to witness. Mr. Wilberforce’s witness came to the fore because of a more serious Christian Conviction in which he saw all people being made in God’s image. Or put differently, if everyone is “God-like”, all needed to be protected.
Examples of this protection came in the Dolben Act. Passed in 1788, this act set a maximum allowable slave allotment. Consequently, one slave ship, the Brookes, from Liverpool, found itself carrying only 295 enslaved Africans, where on a previous trip it housed 609. Instead of Slaves being shackled across the entire deck, there were spaces between them. Because of Mr. Wilberforce and others, the slave trade went from being an unimaginable important and necessary cog in the economy of the British Empire to a public policy choice which was simply grotesque. I am grateful to William for introducing bills which were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. For, each effort was a demonstration in witnessing what was wrong and each attempt helped to bring slavery to an end.
Undoubtedly, Mr. Wilberforce’s twenty year parliamentary campaign led to one of Britain’s first attempts at curtailing its slave trade: the Slave Trade Act of 1807. While, Mr. Wilberforce resigned his seat in 1826 due to failing health, he and others are credited with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833; an act which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. William Wilberforce died three days after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 secured its passage; and yet, his actions preserved my liberties more than 141 years before I was born.
Because William Wilberforce stood up for me, I witness. Because William Wilberforce stood up for me, I stand up for the LGTBQ community. With that being said, the Supreme Court of the United States has made a grave error in decision regarding the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In that case, in a 7-2 ruling, it decided the “Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed hostility toward the baker based on his religious beliefs. The ruling is a win for baker Jack Phillips, who cited his beliefs as a Christian, but leaves unsettled broader constitutional questions on religious liberty.” (Supreme Court rules for Colorado baker in same-sex wedding cake case, By Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter, Updated 5:01 PM ET, Mon June 4, 2018)
Given that I am not a lawyer, I will have to take the word of legal commentators like Steve Vladeck (CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law) that “it’s hard to see the decision setting a precedent” and that “today’s decision is remarkably narrow, and leaves for another day virtually all of the major constitutional questions that this case presented”. (Supreme Court rules for Colorado baker in same-sex wedding cake case, By Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter, Updated 5:01 PM ET, Mon June 4, 2018)
However, the decision still concerns me for two reasons. Firstly, I know the history of American Rights. I know the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. It was the case of a man name Homer Adolph Plessy. On June 7th, 1892, a man by the name of Mr. Plessy bought a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad, from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. Homer was seven-eighths white and one-eighth “Negro” (i.e. Black), and sat down in the white coach on a segregated train. Given that he was one-eighth’s black, he was asked to go into the black section of the train. He refused, so he was arrested and jailed.
The Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Plessy was in the wrong because if services were provided on an “equal but separate” basis, the American State could discriminate against their citizens based on skin colour. The decision laid down in Plessy v. Ferguson would become a landmark case and it would allow for a legal basis for segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson would not lead to equal services but two levels of service: one for those who were white and one for everyone else. Change would not come until 1954, when the US Supreme Court would have to hear a different case. It was the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education. A simple case, all it stated was simple reality: equal but separate led to second class status for anyone who was not white. Or put differently, to get equality and/or equity for one person – regardless of skin colour – it was necessary to give the same to everyone. Consequently, all Plessy v. Ferguson did was to allow for 58 years of continued injustice, unfairness and grievance. We also learned that legal discrimination, apartheid or segregation is often wrong and will only be dealt with when our fellow citizens look up one day and witness a wrong. This is the lesson that Wilberforce taught us.
In the ruling for the cake baker, the Supreme Court did not do that. For, they negated the standard set for fairness that was created when the decision underlying Brown vs. the Board came into being: “equal but separate” standard was not sufficient because it leads to likely leads to unequal applications of the law. The standard for dissemination should be high; and, as it was for Blacks, Mexican and other minorities in the 1950s, the LGTBQ community suffers under an “equal but separate” philosophy. Just as Plessy v. Ferguson didn’t stand up to the wrongs of history, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will be seen in the same light.
If one asks how I can be certain about the future view of a case, my response would be simple: look at the past. In 1883, a US Supreme Court decision (Pace v. Alabama) decreed that laws against interracial marriage were legal. These were called anti-miscegenation statutes; and, in the decision, ensured that people who loved each other could not marry each other. While change would come, it would take more than 80 years and two court decisions: McLaughlin v. Florida in 1964 and Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Eventually, the US Supreme Court would use the 14th Amendment to begin to change American racial inequities. Change comes but it takes time.
Now those decisions didn’t limit anyone’s first 1st Amendment right to Freedom of Speak and I would disagree with those who claim otherwise. I know this because I can point to the Presidential Election of 1960 where the Presidential Candidate Harry F. Byrd and Vice Presidential Candidate Strom Thurmond ran for office decrying the social change and the racial equality which was coming to be. In 1968, American Independent Presidential Candidate George Wallace did the same. Brown v. the Board, McLaughlin v. Florida and Loving v. Virginia did not stop people from calling for segregation. In the 1970’s, when the Courts demanded that Boston be desegregated, white Bostonians went out into the street and said things like “nigger, go home” (A 40-Year Friendship Forged by the Challenges of Busing, the Atlantic, by THOMAS MAFFAI, NOV 17, 2016) To show their distain protesting white Americans held up bananas to buses driving black students, so that black Americans can remember every time one of them – a relative, an ancestor or themselves – were called a monkey or ape as a demeaning name.
(A 40-Year Friendship Forged by the Challenges of Busing, the Atlantic, by THOMAS MAFFAI, NOV 17, 2016) Consequently, in the 1960s, the American State – the Judiciary, the Legislative and Executive Branches – created a principle: you can speak as you wish but a business is required to serve all races.
That principle has worked to this very day and the 1st Amendment was not violated by applying the 14th Amendment because we can see it. Segregationists have used their 1st Amendment right to talk and advocate. They did so in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. To this day, the Ku Klux Klan or modern day equivalents will advocate for the “separation of the races” or “white power” or something similarly ridiculous. In fact, in Charlottesville, in 2017, such despicable hatred was seen by all and the response to it is still reverberating through the US. So, it is so of mystifying to me that the Supreme Court could rule that not allowing same sex couples to participate in the union of marriage is discriminatory but it is okay to discriminate against the provision of services for that same marriage.
Now some might say that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was not perfectly balanced in its decision. That might be true. If that is the case, the US Supreme Court could have written a new judgement balancing the rights of all concerned. It is within their power to do that. It did so writing decisions for three famous cases. When Brown vs. the Board, McLaughlin v. Florida and Loving v. Virginia came across their desk, they rebalanced the inherent wrongs. They did so in 2015 when Obergefell v. Hodges came to be. It was in their power to balance the rights of the LGBTQ and Evangelical Christian communities as well as the proper way that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission should have handled the case. However, that was not done.
So I stand here and witness the grotesqueness of this decision. When previous American Christian communities claimed that they had a right to keep slaves or discriminate against others because it was their religious right to, previous Supreme Courts have swept such arguments away. Romans 13 or other Bible sources had previously not held sway. Instead of the Supreme Court intervened as it did in Brown vs. the Board, McLaughlin v. Florida, Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges, using the 14th Amendment, to grant equality that politicians were too scared to grant. What is problematic is that in this case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the US Supreme Court decided scolding the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was more important than anything else. Accordingly, I stand here and witness, as William Wilberforce did for me, and I pledge that I will do everything in my power to make change happen.