Race: "What You Don’t Know About the Civil Rights Movement Is Hurting You"
The LGBT community is constantly invoking the Civil Rights Movement as a way to provide quantitative examples of our oppression. However, the primary lesson to be learned from that era is not found in the suffering but in the victories. In this column, Ed Jackson puts those comparisons to the test and asks, “What are you willing to do to have your rights recognized?”
I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and our nation’s Civil Rights Movement, and I figured out a few things.
First, thank God for the men and women of all races, religions, and of varied socioeconomic backgrounds who fought and sacrificed during the Civil Rights Movement, because if I had to depend on people in 2009 to defend my rights, I would still be out in the fields picking cotton.
Second, there was no Civil Rights Movement FOR Blacks, and there is no Civil Rights Movement FOR the LGBT community. All of our rights are intertwined.
Third, a few years ago I introduced the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a press conference. Regardless of how you feel about him, during the event, he made an excellent point. He said that by any measure of the word, the Civil Rights Movement was a resounding success. Between approximately 1952 and 1968, Jim Crow and the Black Codes were crushed by the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and voting districts drawn to dilute minority votes were decimated by the Voting Rights Act. Several pivotal legal cases were won further recognizing the right of Black Americans to fully participate in the American experience, but when those battles were won on behalf of Black Americans, they buttressed the rights of ALL Americans.
Oppression imposed on any people is oppression imposed on all people.
When the founding fathers wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” that “all men are created equal,” and that “We the people … ensure the blessings of liberty …”, they forgot to add a footnote saying, “Oh! And by the way, this ‘freedom’ stuff only applies to wealthy, white, heterosexual men who own land.”
The Civil Rights Movement was the first time in our nation’s history when “We the People” stood together and called bullshit on the founding fathers. Civil rights pioneers said, “Either we are all equal, or we are not.” And, “We the People” are forcing your hand. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are not “Black heroes.” In fact, they weren’t all Black. Viola Gregg Liuzzo was a 39 year old white mother of five from Michigan who was shot in the head by Klan members after she participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, a day that fatefully became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The Rev. James Reeb, a white minister from Boston, was beaten to death by white supremacists during the same march. Civil rights pioneers are American heroes who put this nation’s previously hollow rhetoric about equality to the test.
The unfortunate thing is that when many in the LGBT community invoke parallels between our current struggles and those from the Civil Rights Movement, they almost always get them wrong. A consistent and egregiously painful lack of knowledge about civil rights in general and the Civil Rights Movement specifically has been demonstrated on TNG and in the LGBT media.
For example, Michael Joseph Gross authored an article for the Advocate entitled, “Is gay the new black?”. In it he writes about the Prop 8 defeat and makes a shoddy civil rights analogy stating, “It’s impossible not to imagine what might have happened if the civil rights of African Americans, Hispanics, women, or any other minority had been reversed by public referendum.”
Then, he quotes a young woman who was present at the “No on Prop 8” headquarters on election night. She reportedly said, “I am so angry that they dragged us into this shit. And they shouldn’t have. We already won, and still, they are making us fight for what we already won.”
Both statements are sloppily hinged on the ill-informed idea that rights can be “reversed,” “won,” or, otherwise taken away. In reality, we are born with all of the rights enumerated in the founding documents–as written and fully in tact. The problem isn’t that we need to win them, it is that, metaphorically speaking, George Wallace is still trying to prevent women, the poor, and people of color from entering various school house doors.
These errors are made at our own peril because the time and effort expended on fighting to win rights we already have is like working really hard and saving up money to buy something you already own. Instead, where modern day Wallaces are blocking access to our rights, we should be focused on breaking our foot off in their asses and forcing them out of our way. We may not be allowed to marry, but, make no mistake, we do have the right.
Don’t believe me? Check out the title="15th" href="http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.amendmentxv.html" id="snnp">15th and 19th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. When they were added, they did not create “new” rights allowing African Americans and women to vote. Both Amendments begin, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of …” In other words, the authors of the Amendments acknowledged that women and African Americans had the right to vote. The objective they accomplished was removing the obstructions blocking these individual’s ability to access that right. If that’s not enough for you, read up on the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.
Yes, Black men’s right to vote was recognized prior to the right of women, but decades later, white women were administering literacy tests, collecting poll taxes and actively preventing Black men from voting. That is not a dig at white people or women! It happened. We all need to stop being so sensitive and/or accusatory and pretending like race is not an issue in America. Good, bad, and ugly, it is our shared history, and the result of us tiptoeing around racial issues or automatically becoming offended at the slightest reference to the topic is that we do not talk to one another. We do not learn anything, and because we are so busy fighting, demanding and not listening, we are completely unaware of the new barriers going up all around us. While the LGBT community has been fighting with heterosexual African Americans over Prop 8, a right-wing group called the Alliance for Marriage has launched an anti-gay marriage campaign in the Latino community specifically designed to build support for “traditional” marriage.
Will the LGBT community ignore the campaign and wait until we lose more ground? That’s what we usually do. Then we’ll get pissed at heterosexual Latinos because a majority of them voted against us on something. We’ll call them homophobes and attack their faith, when all along it was the right that out flanked us. As I wrote in my piece on gayborhoods, the right has been conducting direct outreach to Black churches for years. But instead of admitting that we missed the warning signs and completely failed to facilitate a meaningful dialogue with Black voters in California, the LGBT community denigrates the Black church, and we embrace academic supposition claiming that Black masculinity is antithetical to homosexuality.
We point fingers and fight and demand, and while we are all distracted by the right’s divide-and-conquer tactics, they are free to move on to the next state and to get a head start on beating us–again. That is the price we pay when we do not talk to each other.
I’ll put it in real terms for you. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Forty-one states currently have statutory Defense of Marriage Acts. Three of those states have statutory language that pre-dates DOMA (enacted before 1996) defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Thirty states have defined marriage in their constitutions. Arizona is the only state that has ever defeated a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman (2006), but subsequently passed one in 2008.”
Some people thought the national rallies protesting the passage of Prop 8 were cool and demonstrated the power of the LGBT community, but I didn’t. I thought they were stupid and too little too late. Where was all that energy and enthusiasm when any number of those new laws were being enacted in the 39 other states? Where was the devotion prior to election day in California? This isn’t Monday morning quarterbacking. I am talking about remedial GOTV campaigning.
I already know that some people are super sensitive and are going to be offended by some of those statements. Fuck ‘em. We need to be proactive. We need soldiers. You want to invoke the Civil Rights Movement? Gay is the New Black? Okay then … Would you be willing to have the hoses and dogs turned on you to protect your right to work? to eliminate housing discrimination? to openly serve in the military? to marry? During the 1960s, teen-aged Black children were. White students and activists known as Freedom Riders, boarded buses traveling to the South to protest segregation, and some, like James Zwerg (before) and Jim Peck (before, 4th from the left), suffered greatly (Zwerg After, Peck After ).
If our allies in California campaign to repeal Prop 8, would you be willing to get on buses and travel to California to help out when it could actually make a difference?
The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t about sitting in our cushy homes, going to parties and bitching about how unfair we’re being treated while sipping a $5 cup of coffee at Starbucks. It was about courage, an unquenchable thirst for justice and getting off our designer or thrift store clad asses and tearing down the arbitrarily constructed barriers erected between us and our rights.
There are battles that must still be fought and barriers yet to be torn down. There are obstacles still blocking access to the rights of women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites, the poor, rural, urban, suburban, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, the LGBT community, and non-discriminating wealthy white male heterosexuals. Another important lesson learned from the Civil Rights Movement is that the same list of people I just rattled off describes the coalition–the ONLY coalition–that made it possible for our nation to make such enormous progress in a relatively short amount of time.
During the Montgomery bus boycott, white suburban house wives loaded up their station wagons with Blacks and drove them to work. They weren’t just taxiing around their maid or gardener. Some gave rides to Blacks because they simply thought it was the right thing to do, and they did it at great risk. They were beaten, and their families were ostracized. Whites were killed registering Black voters in the South. White Quakers provided shelter for Harriet Tubman and the slaves she freed on the Underground Railroad. John Brown, a white abolitionist, was hanged for leading armed battles to free slaves. Look at photos from the 1963 March on Washington, and you will see the diverse face of lasting change in America.
The truth is that the LGBT community has won a few skirmishes here and there, but we’re getting our asses kicked in the war. When was the last time we won a battle that was more than a token or symbolic gesture? Somebody mentioned us in a speech or there is an LGBT character on a television show … whoopie fucking doo. (Well, the inclusion of transgendered individuals on America’s Next Top Model, The Real World and Dirty Sexy Money is a pretty big deal.)
Seriously, if the LGBT community had access to the strategies used to obliterate Jim Crow and if the African American community had the tactics the mainstream LGBT community has used to promote acceptance, we would have an unstoppable alliance. Something else I said in my gayborhood piece was that there are LGBT youth and people of color with families who still do not accept homosexuality. They need the help of the larger LGBT community. And the LGBT community needs to do more than speak erroneously about the Civil Rights Movement. It needs to embrace the steeled determination of a people who were starving for justice, fair treatment and immediate access to their rights. From that pool of unprecedented heroism rose men, women and children who changed the course of this nation–gay-friendly individuals who could help the LGBT community develop effective, winning strategies.
In 1998, I had dinner with six members of the Little Rock Nine, the nine Black teenagers who integrated Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1957. Toward the end of the meal, I turned to the mother of one of the Nine and respectfully asked her how she was able to send her child into that angry mob of segregationists. She leaned in toward me. I could see that, 41 years later, the burden of that decision still weighed heavy on her heart, and she said, “Because it had to be done.”
Is the LGBT community facing situations like those visited upon African Americans during segregation? You tell me. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were thrown in jail, beaten and murdered. Leaders of the LGBT “movement” sit in their million dollar offices on Rhode Island Ave. and host fancy black tie events. A mother made the arduous decision to allow her daughter to step into a situation so dangerous that the National Guard had to be sent in to protect her. The LGBT community is full of lawyers, doctors, bankers, politicians, and Washington power brokers who face few if any limitations on their freedoms.
Nonetheless, the limitations we do face are real, and they are encroachments on our rights and, therefore, the rights of all people.
But what would those who paved the way for the freedoms currently enjoyed by the LGBT community think of us now? The rioters at Stonewall … Harvey Milk … the pioneers of Act Up? Are we deserving of their legacy? Does our hunger for full equality even come close to that of the American heroes who fought during the Civil Rights Movement or those in the LGBT community who picked up the mantle? I’m not saying anyone has to die or be beaten to prove their dedication, but come on, by comparison, can we really call this a movement?
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