Wednesday, September 4, 2013

50 years and counting

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the historic "I Have a Dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I, of course, remember watching the event on television and being amazed, along with everyone else, that so many people showed up to cover the National Mall.  I loved seeing people with their feet in the huge reflecting pool! There was no Twitter, Facebook or email to get the word out, yet everyone knew.  The national press wasn't informing us it was taking place; they were warning us about the probable violence!

For organizers, celebrities, and working folk the event was meant to serve notice on the JFK White House that people wanted human rights and JOBS.  Fifty years later we're still having the same conversation.

Watching the commemorative march on television last week there were some notable differences from the years before.  At the 25th Anniversary celebration activists had to wrestle with organizers to have lesbian poet/activist Audre Lorde invited to speak from the stage.  Internationally known and the poet laureate of the state of New York when she died in 1992, Audre's advocates had to battle for for the organizers to recognize a lesbian of color as a legitimate spokesperson for human rights.  Not surprising since the only woman to speak from the stage at the original March was singer and WWII hero Josephine Baker! The stalwart women who'd been working in the deep south for years like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker were not highlighted at all.  This year Myrlie Evers Williams was just the beginning of the women who spoke.

This year's celebration also displayed another gratifying change: Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the March was not totally ignored.  Years ago when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, Rustin was all but invisible among the heroes being honored.  Even though A. Phillip Randolph had insisted on his value other March organizers didn't know if they could work with a 'homosexual'!  My favorite Randolph quote is when someone challenged him about working with Rustin, a known homosexual: , “Well, well, if Bayard, a homosexual, is that talented—and I know the work he does for me—maybe I should be looking for somebody else homosexual who could be so useful."

This year MSNBC even had a panel of Black queer people to talk about the meaning of the March to the Gay movement!  And Bayard Rustin was quoted as an out gay man by many speakers.  This doesn't mean everything has been healed between the Black and the Gay movements, only that there's been some growth!  James Baldwin would have been proud to be on that stage this year, to be able to be his full self and not have to weigh which was more important--being black or being gay.

Emory University is holding a conference this spring to explore some of the ways the movements are different or similar.  It will be a valuable time we can carry on the conversation and help rid the world of the idea that people of color have to choose one aspect of themselves and ignore all others! 

Whose Beloved Community takes place at Emory March 27-29, 2014.