LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Nine slender statues stand beneath a window to the Arkansas governor's office — bronze, life-size images of the black children who integrated Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 25, 1957, and helped ignite the civil-rights era. "They defied prejudice," says Gregory Donaldson, an African-American Baptist minister from St. Louis visiting the display with his wife Nanette. "They defied bigotry."
A few blocks away, at the very same moment, Samantha Head marries her partner of seven years, Samantha Kertz. Their simple ceremony is one of dozens of gay weddings conducted at the Pulaski County Courthouse since Saturday, when a county judge ruled the state's gay-marriage ban in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The decision thrust Arkansas into a familiar spot: squarely in the middle of a civil-rights fight.
In 1957, the battle lines were hardened but the outcome was certain: Eventually, the nation's schools and other institutions would desegregate. And so it is now, when a gray, rain-spitting workday in Little Rock illustrates how far the gay-rights movement has come — and how far it will go.
As with the Little Rock school-desegregation crisis, the chief protagonists in this story represent both the past and the future. Slightly ahead of his time (and his state) is Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who ruled that a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2004 banning gay marriage was "an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality." Trying to turn back time are the likes of Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert, a fierce opponent of gay rights who wants Piazza impeached.