I was too young to know about the 1963 March on Washington at the time. I learned about it years later, mostly on my own. Maybe that’s why it affected me so much.
The March is still one of the most important events of the civil rights era, and plenty of people are talking about it this week week (Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech is above). Many are declaring that everything’s all better now, but others, like Roger Green, are pointing out how much work remains. And we’re also hearing about how the March organisers excluded women, something I’d never heard before.
Women weren’t the only people excluded, of course. Bayard Rustin, who was the principle organiser of the March, was gay. But in 1963, he had to keep his identity largely secret. Homosexuality was illegal in 49 US states at the time, and the one where is was legal—Illinois—had repealed it’s anti-sodomy law only the year before, in 1962. So Rustin had to keep himself to himself not just because of the likely prejudice of some of the folks involved in the March, but also because he could face arrest simply for being gay.
Nevertheless, the 1963 March raised expectations for so many oppressed people, including those not directly part of the March in their own right, like women and LGBT people. This should have been obvious—people began to see possibilities where perhaps they never did before. This is a powerful legacy of that March, and tribute to the vision of the organisers.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way, then or now. Just yesterday, a group of Black and Latino religious clergy protested at a meeting of the San Antonio City Council who were considering adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s anti-discrimination code. One of the Black preachers said, “While we love the people involved, we cannot allow their agenda to stain the fabric, the tapestry, of the civil rights movement.” He’s not unique, and every week, it seems, we hear a Black clergy person angrily condemning LGBT people for “hijacking” or “co-opting”, or whatever, “their” civil rights movement. As if freedom and equality are limited goods, and if one person has it, someone else must do without.
What’s particularly troubling is that this small minority of Black preachers are actually advancing the work of the largely white far right anti-gay industry that is no friend of racial minorities or the poor. The USA’s anti-gay industry plotted to drive a wedge between Black people, Latino people and the LGBT community. By continually attacking LGBT people, our civil rights and even our very humanity, these preachers are advancing the agenda of their own political adversaries.
Of course, most Black leaders are nothing like that. In fact, most are inclusive and embrace expanding freedom for all. They embody the spirit of Dr. King, and remain true to the dream. People like Julian Bond. In an email he wrote on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, the USA's largest LGBT advocacy group, Bond wrote:
Thousands are in Washington, D.C. today to re-create something so powerful and so vivid that it still plays on loop in my mind. They're here for the 50th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington.We are returning amidst a newly reinvigorated fight for civil rights that has grown rapidly to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.Bond went on to say that Bayard Rustin’s role was “an early embodiment of the unity and commonality that bonded the movement for LGBT equality with the fight for equal treatment of African-Americans.” He’s absolutely right. When I was a grassroots LGBT activist, we frequently lent support to each other’s work, even when it was only endorsement. Sure, we had trouble with the more religious-aligned activists, many of whom opposed our rights back then, some 25 years after the March, but most of them moved with society and now embrace equality for all.
After all, LGBT rights are civil rights.
No parallel between movements is exact. But like race, our sexuality and gender identity aren't preferences. They are immutable, unchangeable – and the constitution protects us all against discrimination based on immutable differences.
Today, we are fighting for jobs, for economic opportunity, for a level playing field free of inequality and of discrimination. It's the same fight our LGBT brothers and sisters are waging – and together we have formed a national constituency for civil rights.
And while we haven't fully secured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most remarkable dream, we are getting closer every single day. [Italics and boldface type were in the original]
So, the March was significant for me in that it made so many people—me included—imagine what could be possible. It led to alliances between minorities struggling for equality, and those alliances still exist, despite the best efforts of our mutual adversaries to drive us apart. It helped all of us to see that we were stronger together than we could ever hope to be apart.
There’s much work to be done. That tiny minority of Black preachers who actively work against the civil and human rights of LGBT people must be reached somehow, as must the minority of LGBT people who are racist (yep, they certainly do exist). Because whatever our differences, and the difficulty we may have in overcoming them, we all still dream, like Dr. King did, of being able to join hands and say, “free at last”.
After all, none of us are free until all of us are free.
Video below: President Obama speaks in commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington.