At last month’s 102nd annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a historic workshop focused on overcoming homophobia within the black community. As an African American, heterosexual, male pastor of a traditionally black Baptist church in the inner city of Washington, D.C., I was glad to see this legendary organization take this small but important step in its increasingly inclusive perspective on civil rights.
There are some, however, including the Rev. Keith Ratliff Sr., an NAACP national board member, who see no parallel between gay rights and civil rights. Expressing this conviction at a rally last May, he demanded that the gay community “stop hijacking the civil rights movement.”
This statement, subtly suggesting that “civil rights” is a black issue and “gay rights” is a white issue, implies that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, equality is not a priority for black people. This sentiment, particularly prevalent regarding the issue of marriage equality, is often expressed in a variety of ways, including, “This is not our issue,” “This is not a priority for the black community,” and, “We have more critical matters to consider.”
One of the problems with this “either/or” approach—that this issue is either “black” or “white”—is that it creates a false dichotomy between LGBT issues and other issues of social justice. Another is that it fosters a hierarchy of oppression in which certain matters are placed at the top of the political agenda while others are tabled.
The greatest problem with this approach is its failure to highlight how multiple forms of oppression are interconnected. This failure to “connect the dots” deceives black and other marginalized groups into believing that dealing with vital issues impacting our communities can, at best, be postponed indefinitely, or, at worst, be ignored completely.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s offers several examples of this type of failure to connect the dots. For instance, when Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the invitation to lead a nonviolent, direct-action, voting rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, white liberals criticized him for being an “outside agitator” and for moving too fast.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he responded by first informing his critics that what was happening in Birmingham was directly connected to what was happening in his hometown of Atlanta. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote. Second, he replied that the word “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’” and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Another example occurred when King spoke out against the war in Vietnam. Although his detractors failed to discern the relationship between the civil rights and peace movements, King was clear that the goal of his controversial stance was not only to save lives in Vietnam, but also to “save the soul of America.” In so doing, he connected the dots of what he called “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
Two other examples reveal King’s own inner struggle to detect the interconnectedness of various forms of oppression.. With regard to the role of women, the civil rights and black power movements were characterized by rampant sexism. Although women played pivotal roles in each, they were primarily relegated to subordinate positions and often treated as sex objects. This was not unusual because, throughout most of the 20th century, race consistently trumped gender as the primary social justice issue within the Black Church and community. Black women were expected (and usually consented) to suppress any notions of women’s liberation—often characterized by black men as a “white” issue—in the interest of black unity, racial solidarity, and the affirmation of black manhood.
This leads us to the other issue of oppression with which King privately agonized—homophobia. Like women’s rights neither King nor any other civil rights leader lifted up gay rights as a goal of the movement. Bayard Rustin, however, one of his chief nonviolent strategists, was openly gay. King staunchly supported Rustin’s role in the movement, despite objections from some of his closest allies, until 1960.
When Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the powerful, influential, and charismatic black pastor and U.S. congressman from Harlem, New York, threatened that year to circulate a false rumor that Rustin and King had been involved in a homosexual affair, King—much to Rustin’s disappointment—promptly accepted Rustin’s resignation. It was not until 1963, when King again stood solidly behind him, that Rustin was assigned the responsibility to plan, organize, and orchestrate the phenomenally successful March on Washington.
These examples of connecting, or failing to connect, the dots of oppression help us to understand that the quest for human justice, freedom, and equality cannot be fragmented. The layered complexity of human identity forbids it. To claim that we are for racial equality while ignoring women’s equality, or to insist that we support justice for the poor but disdain justice for LGBT persons, is to engage in a precarious game of self-deception in which the ultimate irony is that we ourselves become the inadvertent objects of our own rejection, self-hatred, and internalized oppression.
If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today at the ripe old age of 82, I believe his consistently evolving consciousness would have removed his blind spots of 43 years ago. Just as he was a trailblazer in protesting the Vietnam War, I contend that he also would have been a pioneer in the struggle for women’s rights and LGBT equality. This is why so many of his former associates who are still alive—including Congressman John Lewis and the NAACP’s own Julian Bond—are unequivocal in their support of gay rights, including marriage equality. The same was true of his late widow, Coretta Scott King. They have understood that LGBT oppression is not some alien or superfluous concern that has little or nothing to do with other justice issues critical to the black community and that, in fact, it is a critical issue of civil rights.
The Reverend Dennis W. Wiley, Ph.D., is pastor of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. He is a contributor to the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, or FIRE, initiative at the Center for American Progress, which explores the impact of public policy on gay and transgender people of color. This is his first of a series of columns in which he will discuss progressivism within the black church.