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Civil-rights lessons of 1950s help shape Arkansas' current gay marriage debate


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Fifty-seven years after federal troops escorted nine black students into Little Rock's Central High School as a white mob jeered, Arkansas again finds itself in the center of a debate over civil rights. This time, the issue is gay marriage, but the 1957 desegregation crisis still casts a shadow.

More than 200 gay couples have been issued marriage licenses in the Bible Belt state since a judge struck down Arkansas' same-sex marriage ban.

Gay rights supporters regularly invoke the 1957 desegregation battle, warning opponents that history may not look kindly on them. At the same time, those concerns may not resonate throughout Arkansas, where recent polling still shows heavy opposition to gay marriage.

Nearly a week before the ban was struck down, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel cited the state's spotty civil rights history as he declared his support for marriage equality. While vowing to defend the ban in court, McDaniel became the first statewide elected official to endorse same-sex marriage.

McDaniel said he voiced his opinion because he wanted to avoid following the legacy of former Attorney General Bruce Bennett, who is little remembered after he didn't fight then-Gov. Orval Faubus' efforts to keep Little Rock's schools segregated in 1957.

"(Bennett) would have lost the election in '58 if he had done so, but his place in history ... would be different," McDaniel said.

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