Liz Abzug, daughter of the late-former New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug who introduced the first federal gay rights bill in 1975, was 11-years-old when she and her mother attended the March on Washington in 1963.
She told the Washington Blade on Saturday her mother would have certainly returned to the Lincoln Memorial five decades later.
“She’d be up there speaking in the front,” Liz Abzug said as she stood with members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in New York City, on the National Mall. “She’d be screaming and speaking and charging up and thrilled, but saying we have unfinished business.”
Liz Abzug is among the LGBT rights advocates who joined the tens of thousands of people who commemorated the 1963 march during which Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten; National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Rev. MacArthur Flournoy of the Human Rights Campaign; Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry and Adrian Shanker, president of Equality Pennsylvania, are among those who joined Rev. Al Sharpton, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and others at the Lincoln Memorial. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and members of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Equality Maryland, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore, the Latino GLBT History Project and other LGBT groups also took part.
“I’m here with my brothers and sisters, not only in the union movement, but with LGBT people, with African Americans from the civil rights movement,” Suzanne Keller of Richmond, Va., told the Blade as she stood along the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial with her girlfriend who was 13-years-old when she watched the 1963 March on Washington on television. “I know I’m here with my people.”
Lance Chen-Hayes of Princeton, N.J., held a sign in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples and affordable health care as he stood on the Mall with his husband, Stuart Chen-Hayes, and their son Kalani. Stuart Chen-Hayes cited a list of people whom he considers heroes that include Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, and former U.S. Army private Chelsea Manning whom a military judge on Wednesday sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks.
“If we don’t stand up, speak up and be in the streets, who will,” Stuart Chen-Hayes told the Blade. “It’s especially important for us who are lesbian, gay, transgender and parents because there’s all sorts of folks who fought for us 50 years ago and long before that. It’s just continuing the struggle for civil rights and human rights.”
Anders Minter, a gay man who is a member of the United Auto Workers, traveled to the nation’s capital from Amherst, Mass. to attend the march.
He told the Blade he felt “incredible power and solidarity” while marching, but noted what he described as a “great tension.”
“It’s been 50 years since we’ve come together as a country with a focus on economic justice and social justice,” Minter said, noting the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington took place against the backdrop of June’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a crucial portion of the Voting Rights Act and last month’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. “It’s been a long journey, but there’s a long journey ahead.”
D.C. officials used the march to highlight the issue of statehood for the nation’s capital.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray noted during a pro-statehood rally at the D.C. War Memorial near the Mall that people of “different sexual orientations and genders” were among those who attended the 1963 March on Washington.
“We’re demanding justice because justice is exactly what we are here to accomplish,” he said.
D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large,) D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2,) Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4,) Marion Barry (D-Ward 8,) Vincent Orange (D-At-Large,) Anita Bonds (D-At-Large) and David Grosso (I-At-Large) and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier are among those who also attended the pro-statehood rally.
Roland Martin, a former CNN commentator whom the network suspended in 2012 over homophobic tweets he sent during that year’s Super Bowl, also spoke.
“This morning we serve notice as the March on Washington 2013 begins that we, who have fewer rights than almost any who will march today, can no longer allow the deliberate disempowerment and denial of our rights to go unnoticed, unnoted, unmentioned and ignored,” D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, said. “No more marches and ignoring D.C.”
King understood rights are ‘not divisible’
Many of the march participants with whom the Blade spoke said they feel King would have supported LGBT rights if he were still alive.
“His message of equality, his message of inclusion of all people was loud and clear in everything that he wrote and every speech that he gave,” Grosso said.
“We’re humans and everybody deserves the same rights,” Daniel Trejo of Columbia Heights told the Blade as he prepared to march to the Lincoln Memorial with the D.C. Office on Latino Affairs.
Minter referenced King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as he discussed how he feels the slain civil rights leader would have backed LGBT rights.
“Martin Luther King was an incredible listener, as much as he was an incredible orator,” Minter said. “Part of acceptance and love is listening and understanding and I think he would have added this to his work.”
Both Liz Abzug and Keller noted to the Blade the slain civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King, backed marriage rights for same-sex couples before she passed away in 2006.
“Dr. King had a key understanding that rights are not divisible,” Keller said. “If we don’t have human rights for everybody, we don’t have human rights for anybody.”