BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Gov. Bob Riley is defending his membership in a Masonic organization that critics say excludes blacks.
Riley, a Republican who is running for re-election against Democratic Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, is a member of a Masonic lodge in his east Alabama hometown of Ashland that is affiliated with the Grand Lodge of Alabama, a statewide group with no known blacks among more than 30,000 members.
Speaking in an interview with The Associated Press, Riley said he did not know whether his lodge had any black members. But Riley denied that the Masonic group is racist, as did two leaders of the organization in interviews Friday.
Riley's membership in the Masons has been mentioned on Internet blogs and was a hot topic on a Birmingham-based talk show hosted by Russ and Dee Fine, Baxley supporters who claim they were fired earlier this week partly for pointing out Riley's membership in the Masons.
In an interview, Dee Fine said a governor shouldn't be a member of an all-white group, particularly since Grand Lodge documents dating to 1876 show it bars blacks as members.
The Governor went on to say,
Riley said the comments about his ties to Masonry are "bordering on ridiculous." He said that he knows some black Masons.
"Both Shriners and Masons do a lot of good."
Yes, he may very well know some black Masons. They are Prince Hall Masons, and he is prohibbited by his Grand Lodge from communicating Masonically with them. They certainly aren't members of the Grand Lodge of Alabama, at least not according to the Grand Master.
The head of the Grand Lodge of Alabama, Grand Master Frank W. Little, said he knows of no blacks among the 32,000 members of the state organization, which has 318 lodges and accepts new members by applications and referrals from other members.
But Little denied that there is anything in the organization's current constitution or edicts to prevent a black from joining.
"To my knowledge I don't know of any black who's ever applied for membership in the Grand Lodge," he said. "Is there anything that would prevent them? No. As the grand master, if I heard of any lodge that denied a man membership because of his race they wouldn't be a lodge for long."
But since Masonic law says that no Mason can be asked whether he voted against a petitioner or not, or why he would have voted against a petitioner, and that to ask about such things is a violation of Masonic laws, the Grand Master couldn't possibly hear of such things.
Another state Masonic official, Grand Secretary Jerry M. Underwood, said the group has an ethnically diverse membership even though critics say it has no blacks.
"We have Hispanics and Indians," he said. "In fact, we brought in an Iranian here in Montgomery a few weeks ago."
Why does this sound like a Lenny Bruce routine? Or a scene from Blazing Saddles?
I don't for one second believe that Brother Riley is a bigot. It's also likely that he doesn't know the first thing about Prince Hall Masonry - I suspect the subject doesn't come up very often in lodges there. But I absolutely believe that the press will seize on this as an October Surprise during the last six weeks before the election in the Governor's race in Alabama. Undoubtedly the Democratic challenger will make some dramatic statement over the weekend denouncing the Masons as a bunch of old racists. I wouldn't even be surprised if the Governor demitted from his lodge on live television by Monday morning. In fact, I'll bet it pops up somewhere on a Sunday Morning pundit show. All about how the Freemasons are a bunch of racists.
My Brothers, de jure (maybe even de facto, in some states) segregation continues to exist in Freemasonry in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and West Virginia. In Canada, Prince Hall recognition has not been extended in Ontario. Certainly, some few lodges in these states may very well have black members, but those Grand Lodges that have failed to recognize their Prince Hall counterparts will besmirch the rest of us by their passive silence or their attempts to construct legalistic barriers to recognition.
People are funny social animals. We all tend to associate with people we feel comfortable with. In states where Grand Lodges have extended joint recognition with their Prince Hall brethren, the Prince Hall lodges have not ceased to be. And there are plenty of Prince Hall Masons who want nothing to do with their white counterparts, either. There has been no talk of mergers, and probably never will. Prince Hall Masonry has a 225 year heritage, older than many other US Grand Lodges, and they are not going away anytime soon. Visitation between lodges has been by mutual agreement, and no Mason has given up his right to object to the visit of a stranger. Lodges that have no problem with joint meetings and degree work have engaged in these events happily, but no one has forced anyone to do so.
Unfortunately, now that this story has hit the fan, the rest of us will have to answer the criticism. "Gee, I read that Freemasonry is made up of a bunch of racists."
It was never meant to be.
It only is in a small, isolated part of the world. And the rest of us are ashamed. "Separate but equal" died in this country with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, my Brothers.
The time has come to put this shameful issue to rest once and for all. A fraternity that espouses universal brotherhood either means it or it doesn't. The time has come to put aside the fear, put aside the rhetoric and extend the hand of brotherly love and friendship on both sides of the color barrier.