(UPDATE: The MLK Memorial dedication ceremony has been postponed due to Hurricane Irene. It is expected to be rescheduled for September or October.)
When a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is dedicated this weekend, it will mark more than the addition of a new monument to Washington, D.C.’s landscape.
It will symbolize the civil rights leader’s success.
The stone likeness rises as the first monument to a man of color on the National Mall, 48 years after King described his then ground-breaking dream, and in a nation where — at least ostensibly — much of that dream has been realized.
The movement was a model for countless others, including the LGBT rights push, which has shared nonviolence tenets and even leaders like gay, black activist Bayard Rustin.
Yet most similarities end there.
While fruits of the civil rights movement are evident in modern America — apparent in a widening black middle class and a black first family in the White House, for instance — the gay rights movement’s successes have been slower coming.
Same-sex marriage rights remain tenuous and limited to a handful of states; despite hate crime legislation, the threat of violence continues to deny many gays and lesbians a basic sense of safety in their hometowns.
As the nation prepares to welcome King to the National Mall, community leaders share their outlook on the LGBT movement with the Washington Blade — from a California group using civil unrest to humanize the struggle; to the partner of late gay and civil rights icon Bayard Rustin working to keep his ideals alive; to former NAACP leader Julian Bond, who uses his status as a key historic civil rights figure to promote the LGBT rights struggle as a modern civil rights fight.
They point to entrenched faith-based bigotry, and even a lack of movement cohesion, as obstacles. But each believes that by using King’s model of continued struggle, the LGBT dream of full equality can be achieved.
Images of change
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting in an Alabama jail cell. Firefighters battering blacks with powerful jets of water. Jeering whites pouring condiments over the heads of stoic lunch counter protesters.
They’re images that moved activist Robin McGehee, as a child growing up in Jackson, Miss.
And today as executive director of GetEqual, she organizes demonstrations to create actions and images she hopes will drive home the plight of gay and lesbian men and women just as powerfully. An absence of such visual tools encouraged McGehee to form the group, with offices in Berkeley, Calif., and Washington, D.C., in January 2010.
“We had that in reference to the AIDS movement in ACT-UP, and fighting for adequate health care. But in reference to a full civil rights fight for equality, I couldn’t think of one iconic action,” she said.
The group has orchestrated more than 40 actions in the last year, including one in which military veterans handcuffed themselves to the White House fence to protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The group honed use of such actions at the Highlander Research and Education Center, a New Market, Tenn., center that trained members of the original civil rights movement. McGehee and other LGBT equality activists underwent training at the historic center in January 2010.
“Not until you can give literal imagery to that discrimination do people really resonate or get it,” McGehee said.
Yet despite mirroring the earlier movement’s successful tactics, activists’ success in mainstreaming LGBT rights remains light years behind that of racial equality — something McGehee blames on entrenched religious bigotry.
“We’ve gotten into a moment where people are using the Bible as a weapon,” said McGehee, pointing out that while religious rhetoric once justified slavery and racism, cultural changes eventually erased such thinking. “… I don’t think we’ve jumped that hurdle with regard to gays.”
McGehee is encouraged, however, by more subtle success in incorporating gays and lesbians socially. Just a few years after Ellen DeGeneres thought twice about coming out on TV, realistic portrayals of gays and lesbians are common on TV.
“In time,” she said, “I think we’re gonna get there.”
A life of service
Walter Naegle had certainly heard of Bayard Rustin, the relentlessly active civil rights agitator who gained as much notoriety for his efforts to win black equality as for his open homosexuality.
But on the day he ran into the civil rights legend on a New York City corner in April 1977, he didn’t recognize him: Rustin wasn’t carrying his trademark walking stick.
“When he gave me his name, I knew,” said Naegle, whose chance meeting with Rustin lead to a 10-year relationship that ended only when the activist died in 1987.
More than two decades later, Naegle keeps Rustin’s ideals alive, working with filmmakers to promote “Brother Outsider,” a portrayal of Rustin’s story, executing his estate and generally overseeing the use of his image.
He believes Rustin’s courage, openness and tireless work — he was in his 70s and still agitating when he died — have helped make him resonate as an icon of the human rights movement.
By the time Naegle met Rustin, the activist had long been a legend. Rustin had worked with A. Philip Randolph to strengthen relationships between blacks and labor unions, but was perhaps best known for his role organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
He’d also become a gay rights icon before it was fashionable: Rustin was essentially outed in 1953 when he was arrested on a “morals charge,” yet he refused to deny the charges or his sexual orientation.
“He didn’t have to hide anything,” he said. “He was just going to be who he was and let the chips fall where they may.”
Rustin would pay the price for that openness.
“Whenever he would rise to a certain level, particularly in the African-American civil rights movement but also in other movements, something would happen and someone would try to chop him down,” Naegle said.
Nonetheless, “He was not defeated. He didn’t turn around and stop his activism — he just worked on the sidelines.”
Rustin remained active with several organizations, including the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, at the time of his death.
Years later, his story still has the power to inspire. Naegle said a book of his letters is slated for publication in March, in time for what would have been Rustin’s 100th birthday.
Naegle believes his partner would have been “heartened” to see marriage equality happen in even one state. But he wouldn’t have been satisfied with limited success.
“It’s fine to have these victories in urban areas,” Naegle said. “But people all over the country should be entitled to the same thing.”
“Gay and lesbian rights are not ‘special’ rights”
Julian Bond’s new fight
Where others may see conflict between the black and gay rights agendas, Julian Bond sees similarities.
Both groups struggle against bigotry based on personal characteristics. Both are entitled to basic rights by the same Constitution. And both benefit from each others’ successes.
Indeed, he argues, “People of color ought to be flattered that our movement has provided so much inspiration for others — that it has been so widely imitated,” Bond, who works as an adjunct professor at American University, told the Blade.
The man who has worn many hats as a Georgia lawmaker and leader with both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, has more recently directed his outspoken energies to the conflict between civil rights and gay rights advocates.
It’s a particularly touchy dispute. Old school civil rights leaders and even some black gays bristle at LGBT activists’ use of King’s rhetoric to promote their agenda as a modern civil rights movement. Some site racial divisions within the LGBT movement, and argue that discrimination faced by gays isn’t as harsh as that faced by blacks.
Yet for Bond, there isn’t much of a dispute: The two groups must lock arms.
“Many gays and lesbians worked side by side with me in the ’60s civil rights movement. Am I now to tell them thanks for risking life and limb helping me win my rights, but they are excluded because of a condition of their birth?” he said. “That they cannot share now in the victories they helped to win?”
Bond has lent his outspoken rhetoric and organizational skills to many causes over the years.
While a student at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, in the ’60s, he helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was the first president of the SPLC and was board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1998 to 2010.
He’s become one of the most vocal mainstream voices in the movement to promote equal treatment for gays and lesbians, going as far as to boycott the funeral of King widow Coretta Scott King in 2006 after the services were arranged at an anti-gay church.
In July, Bond spoke at an NAACP forum discussing gay and lesbian issues in the black community, featuring openly gay black comedian Wanda Sykes and CNN anchor Don Lemon.
“People of color carry the badge of who we are on our faces. But we are far from the only people suffering discrimination,” Bond said. “Sadly so do many others. They deserve the law’s protections and civil rights too.”
Bond’s comments stand in contrast to the black community’s historically conservative stance on gay issues.
Yet he said one need only look at the personal examples set by the lauded civil rights leaders to see whether such thinking is in line with King’s dream.
“We cannot know what Dr. King would have thought about today’s GLBT movements,” Bond said. “But if we consider the prominent role his widow, Coretta Scott King, occupied in speaking out on GLBT rights, it is hard to believe that he would not have done the same.”