Civil rights then and now: From MLK to marriage equality

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KresLynn Knouse, Assistant News Editor, @KresLynn


Significant strides have been made throughout history in the name of civil rights, or the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality. A weeklong commemoration took place last week to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and inspire students to think about the magnitude of civil rights issues and the political progress of freedom.


As part of the commemoration, professor Laurie Wood teamed up with student Brandon Springer for a panel to explore the parallels between race discrimination and marriage equality. Wood was one of the five plaintiffs in the Kitchen v. Herbert case that struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.


The State of Utah hired outside help as the case was taken to the 10th U.S. District Court after the Supreme Court issued a stay on the decision. Utah does not recognize the 900 same-sex marriages that took place prior to the stay granted by the higher court. The status of those marriages will be on hold until the 10th District Court makes a final ruling.


Springer began the discussion with comparisons between civil rights cases such as the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case and the contemporary issue of same-sex marriage. The Loving v. Virginia case was brought on by plaintiffs Richard and Mildred Loving, who had been sentenced to prison for one year for marrying each other.


Their marriage was in violation of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage as Richard identified as Caucasian and Mildred identified as African-American. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that the state’s law was unconstitutional in violation of the Due Process clause and the Equal Protection clause.


“Securing human rights is a notion that belongs to many different groups of people, but what these groups have in common is they all seek equal treatment under the law and they all deal with the 14th amendment of our constitution,” Springer said.


The Loving v. Virginia case has uncanny similarities to the Kitchen v. Herbert case, including the argument that the freedom to marry resides with the individual and that a state should not infringe on that right. Though both cases come from different decades and carry unique histories, both cases were made in the name of civil rights and equality.


During the discussion, Wood described her journey from an English professor with over 30 years of teaching experience to a civil rights activist involved in one of the most monumental cases in state history. Wood and her wife Kody were one of the first couples to receive a same-sex marriage license in Utah.


“It wasn’t an easy decision to make- it’s hard to give up your privacy and expose yourself to the media. But marriage does matter to me, and I know this was the right thing to do,” Wood said.


Wood went on to discuss the feelings of both joy and anxiety she experienced after hearing that Utah’s amendment 3 was ruled unconstitutional and that the state was filing for a stay. She also described her excitement as she witnessed hundreds of couples lining the streets of Salt Lake in hopes of receiving marriage licenses.

When asked if she’s enjoying her time as a newlywed, she beamed.


“I actually really like saying ‘this is my wife’. That time that we were actually recognized as being truly married was like being out of the smog. I don’t think I realized how much I felt the oppression of being treated like a second-class citizen, that guardedness- until I didn’t for that small window of time,” Wood said.


Wood believes that though the state continues to battle this issue in court, hearts and minds are being changed not only in Utah but nationwide. Although it may take some time for the courts to make a final decision, one thing is definite- this legal battle has provided Utahns with the unique opportunity to be a part of history in the making.