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28 January 2009, 3:00 pm 13 Comments

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 StonewallHarvey 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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13 Comments »

  • Tyrone said:

    Very interesting post, Ed! The general apathy to the struggle is in part a reflection of the political apathy that existed in the US. However, with the recent election I think this political apathy has brought a new sense of passion to politics. Let’s hope we gays utilize this moment.

    While the march that followed the passage of Prop 8 may have been a little too late, I think it was good for us as a community to see that we can get it to together if we want to make it happen.

    Also, I think we should note the work of Soulfource which is on the front lines. Young people travel the country in buses to address homophobia and at religious and military schools.

  • Mike B. said:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Thank you for saying what needs to be said.

    I’ve felt so alone in my own howlings about how much our side complains about discrimination and how little it’s willing to do the hard and unglamorous work of fighting it.

    This is why the antics from California piss me off so much — like I’m supposed to care if a bunch of gay people get together AFTER Prop 8 passes to bitch and moan about bigotry. As if merely complaining about bigotry actually DOES anything about bigotry anyway.

    We’ve somehow turned into people who mistakenly believe that we can win our rights by NOT doing things: We won’t talk to this person, we won’t listen to that person, we won’t buy from this company, we won’t support that politician.

    It’s time we do something. I’m hopeful that the Prop 8 debacle has shown that our “leaders” are only that in name and will spur a new generation of smart, effective activism.

    Hey, a guy can dream :)

  • Mike B. said:

    BTW, by my count, there’s 30 states that have passed constitutional amendments against marriage, 44 that have banned marriage either by const. amendment or statute, and 26 that have done both. Here’s my source:

    http://www.ncsl.org/programs/cyf/samesex.htm

  • MTP said:

    Awesome post. Even as a gay white male, I too chafe at folks who try to compare the LGBT rights movement to the movement for racial equality. There are many movements working towards justice, each fighting on different political and social landscapes. But, I also like to think that there is a larger Movement underfoot. It’s hard to outline or articulate, but I think there are folks out there who are working real hard, not only critiquing others but also themselves, to end all forms of oppression. I’ve moved in and out of the “anarchist” scene, and for all the criticisms (many of them legit), I appreciated their general inclination towards tearing down all barriers.

    When talking about beatings, fire hoses, etc, I think some comparisons and contrasts may be appropriate. Oftentimes, civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s (whether in a place like Selma or at Stonewall) were often beaten or humiliated as a group. And their solidarity with each other, in the face of brutality, formed a powerful image that raised the general consciousness of injustice. That doesn’t take away from the fact that there were far too many isolated beatings and lynchings, some of which have faded from history forever.

    I am one of many gays who have been on the receiving end of a violent hate crime, and although I don’t care to get into the details, it was clear that the issue was with my sexuality and it was clear that the assailant was committing physical harm. And while this sort of thing happens on a regular basis, it hardly ever seems to penetrate the national consciousness. In fact, it hardly ever seems to become a part of the LGBT community’s dialogue about equal rights. Marriage, yeah, it’s very important. Gays in the military, of course, go for it. These narratives make a point, and can play on “common sense moral values” (e.g., he can take a bullet for you, but he can’t be honest about his sexuality?)

    But, getting back to my point about physical violence, in ’60s activism, it illustrated the underlying injustice so clearly: these people are being directly harmed for who they are (their identity as black, gay, etc) not for whatever they may have done (e.g., stage a sit-in or patronize a gay establishment).

    Can we come up with constructive ways to force the oftentimes silent oppression of LGBTs out into the broad daylight? Can we think of some real, honest, well-planned direct actions that make the case clear?

    Just thinking out load here. As an example, let’s say the Metropolis Police Force is known for hiding or covering-up hate crimes. A local LGBT activist group puts out a call to the local community to help them identify cases where the police have essentially let the attacker(s) go without any charge or a slap on the wrist. Then, wait a few days until it happens again. Protect the victim’s identity, but get the story out to the community, make it vivid. And then, organize a group to head down to police HQ the next damn morning, and stage a sit-in in their offices, demanding justice and refusing to leave until the injustice is corrected.

    Make sure to have a lot of people, because big groups scare them. It will also make it more likely that a local reporter will be there to cover the event (certainly the Metropolis Blade or the Metropolis Weekly could be tipped off), take pictures and video as the cops inevitably arrest a bunch of people, and publicize the fuck out of how your community’s government officials are complicit in reinforcing a widespread social problem known as homophobia.

    I’m down.

  • Anonymous said:

    This is rich.

    In a column in which the author strains to link LGBT rights to the Civil Rights movement of the 60′s, he informs us that “a right-wing group called the Alliance for Marriage has launched an anti-gay marriage campaign.”

    Presumably without knowing that the chairman of the Alliance for Marriage is former Congressional Del. Dr. Walter Fauntroy, D-D.C.

    Who 35 years ago was the primary organizer of the March on Washington, at which Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

  • John said:

    This is an awesome post. Thank you. Having said that, I don’t entirely agree with you. Two things:

    1. You say, “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.”

    I don’t know how you can say this without acknowledging the dramatic strides that have been made in terms of the general public growing more supportive of LGBT people. Today, a majority supports civil unions when that would have been unheard of 20 years ago. 15 years ago, Clinton’s attempt to allow servicemen and women to serve openly was derailed due to lack of support from the public, and now the vast majority (something like 75%)favor the repeal of DADT. Obama isn’t doing anything especially courageous in favoring the overturning of DADT; the country has simply caught up with where Clinton was 15 years ago. Now, you may be right that these changes have taken place despite a woefully inadequate political movement, but we are most certainly winning the war that matters, which is broad, increasing public support for our goals.

    2. I wouldn’t scoff at the protests that emerged after Prop 8. Too little too late? Yes. But would you have preferred we all do nothing after Prop 8? Do you think there is no value in the emergence of new activist groups like JointheImpact in the wake of Prop 8? Talk about Monday morning quarterbacking. It seems like you are complaining about people complaining about Prop 8! Let’s be happy that Prop 8 woke some people up.

    Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post. =D

  • patrique said:

    I love this post because it addresses several issues that face the gay community. The piece was written wonderfully. I’ve attempted to explore the link between the Stonewall Riots and subsequent loss of prominent gay activists due to HIV. Those who were radical fighters died without teaching the next generation how to assert their rights. They also died without teaching the next generation what it means to fight for what they want.

    We as a younger generation hear their stories trickled down through second hand sources when a primary source is much more effective. That is one of the reasons that the Black Civil Rights Movement was able to maintain its momentum in championing for causes, because while some leaders (Dr. King, Malcolm X) were killed, more rose up to the occasion and were visible in continuing to champion rights.

    If we as a community are serious about gaining the rights set forth in the constitution, then we must not be afraid to take risk and step outside our comfort zone. People learn best by seeing others in action. I, for one, try to step out of my comfort zone more each day in an attempt to champion for more gay rights by contributing what I know and what I can do to help.

  • copp3rred said:

    Gay rights and women’s rights movements have far more parallels, especially out of a global perspective rather than the Civil Rights era of the 60′s.

    Both the former have not achieved as much as could have been hoped for or expected given the time that has passed.

    Everyone likes a success story to attach to their own, even if the fit isn’t exact.

  • Phil said:

    i think your idea of rights is interesting, to shift our perception from “give us our rights” to “get out of the way of us fulfilling our rights”. to kicking the asses of those getting in our way.

    Ed, do you think that activists/citizens are more likely to fight (facing the hoses and dogs) if we view our rights in this way? i just want to know how much emphasis you place on this strategy, and if it will actually motivate LGBTA people.

  • Phil said:

    let me clarify, when i say “fight” i dont necessarily mean using violence or fists to change things. instead, i mean “stand” or “struggle”.

    also, i think that this line is incredible:

    “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.”

  • John Bisceglia said:

    My God. I’m relieved to hear someone say it so well. I often feel alone since most gays I know cannot understand my “rage”, but they are not in my position (disabled by discrimination).

    I say for Queers who are FED UP with having to be “liked enough” before we have equal rights, for those who believe EQUALITY is ours to TAKE and refuse to beg, and for any American who supports our demand to be treated fairly under the law – EQUALITY TAX PROTEST.
    Yes, my own blog expresses my rage (which I am allowed to do since my career and ability to work in any capacity is destroyed).

    “Give me (equal) liberty or give me death” only makes sense to those who have seen their own family and children seriously hurt by inequality.

  • Keeping It Real said:

    I agree. Seems like some in the LGBTQ COMMUNITIES think we can just lobby, promote, advertise, and : you tube facebook myspace twitter and reality show ourselves into state by state, right by right ourselves into equality, all the while leaving the poor and working class of us behind.

  • Keeping It Real said:

    I agree. Seems like some in the LGBTQ COMMUNITIES think we can just lobby, promote, advertise, and : you tube facebook myspace twitter and reality show ourselves into state by state, right by right ourselves into equality, all the while leaving the poor and working class of us behind.

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