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Georgia View: The Right Side of History

I grew up in DeKalb County during the 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Though the birthplace and cradle of that movement was less than a dozen miles from my home, and only a couple of miles from the hospital of my birth, I was largely unaware of the turmoil and strife of those dramatic and stressful times.

 The closest that world came to mine was during numerous days and occasional evening encounters with the worlds of two women who were near and dear to our family, Lillie Mae Fleetwood and Eloise Morgan. My grandmother was our next-door neighbor growing up, and my parents and grandparents both worked in the family newspaper business.

Lillie Mae worked for my grandparents, helping to raise my aunt, her own nine children and later my brother, sisters and me. Eloise worked for our family from my days in elementary school through long after my graduation from UGA. These women were as much a part of our family in my mind as my cousins, aunts and uncles. We loved them, and they loved us.

The Atlanta business community and some progressive state leadership (though not all) helped Atlanta to set a different example from other Southern states during the Civil Rights era. The City Too Busy to Hate experienced sit-ins and more than the occasional protest, but no race riots, no overreacting police chiefs or sheriffs wielding fire hoses.

Thanks to the leadership and political courage of Georgia’s current governor, we are again taking the lead and shining a light in the right direction. Georgia can remain a conservative, Bible-quoting and even gun-toting state without becoming viewed or known as an intolerant, hypocritical place where the clock is being turned back.

This column may well elicit hate mail from friends in Georgia’s faith-based community, but I ask that they first read, in its entirety, the proposed law that Gov. Nathan Deal chose to veto. One passage outlines clearly that faith-based nonprofits (a category larger than churches) would be within their legal right – and immune from litigation for damages – if they were to terminate the employment of an employee whom they suspected of being lesbian or gay.

Georgia is already an at-will employment state, which means an employer can fire an employee for any (or no) reason and with no warning. This new law would have been a license to discriminate.

Weeks before Gov. Deal announced his intentions, he held a press briefing acknowledging that while he supported the previously proposed and less-sweeping Pastor Protection Act, he was troubled by the idea of signing any bill that he believed would lead to discrimination.

Still, the battle over this issue is apparently not over yet. Georgia’s lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and numerous legislators say they will be back next year with another bill.

I can’t help but see the similarities between this issue of discrimination disguised as faith and the same arguments people used during the Civil Rights era. Eloise Morgan helped me become the person I am today. In 1989, as she was dying, fighting multiple ailments while battling cancer in the then non-air-conditioned Grady Hospital, I tried to visit her at least once a week.

Though I had only been a child during the Civil Rights era, I kept wishing I had been an adult and in a position to speak up, say something and do more in those times. I could not help or change Eloise’s life at that point. All I could do was let her know that we loved her and thank her and tell her we’d try to help her son and brother who survived her in the years ahead.

Well, I am a grown-up now. And so, clearly, is Gov. Nathan Deal. Our neighboring governors and some legislatures may still be dreaming of The United Straights of America, but this son of the South is hoping that they wake up soon.

It’s time to be on the right side of history and treat others as we would want them to treat us. So, thank you, Gov. Deal, for myself and on behalf of Eloise, who I think would approve.

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