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Web Editorial--February 2006

Race and Gender: A Moment to Reflect

By Michael Dover

The passing of Coretta Scott King, poignantly coming on the eve of Black History Month and just two weeks after the annual observance of the holiday named for her late husband, offers a moment to reflect on the ways in which gender issues showed up during the height of the civil rights struggle. Mrs. King's death also came a short time after that of Rosa Parks, another icon in that struggle.

It's important to remember the great women who, along with many great men, led the way to a more just society. It's important, too, to understand that Rosa Parks didn't just decide on the spur of the moment not to move to the back of the bus; she'd been part of a longstanding women's organization in Montgomery, and her stand that day was planned carefully. Only later did the women, as a strategic decision, cede leadership to the male clergy, including the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the bus boycott took shape. And it was the hard-working black women of Montgomery who formed the backbone of that movement and made history.

Others come to mind. I think of Fannie Lou Hamer, an organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who challenged the credentials of the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention with her impassioned words: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." I'm awed by the courage of such women as Autherine Lucy, who faced mobs in her attempt to attend the University of Alabama in 1956, and Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault, a well-known journalist), who was successful in beginning the integration of the University of Georgia five years later. And there were the hundreds of young women who sat as equals with their male fellow-students in the sit-ins of the '60s, facing jail, verbal abuse and risk to their personal safety.

Though women stood shoulder-to-shoulder with men throughout the civil rights movement, men were not universally appreciative of their role. At the famous 1963 March on Washington, not one woman was on the platform with King and other male leaders. There were open discussions during those years about the need for men to be seen as leaders to present positive role models to young black men who more often saw their mothers and other women as the exemplars of strength in their families and communities. And there was the remarkably stupid, demeaning comment from Stokely Carmichael, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that "The only position for women in the movement is prone."

Homophobia also showed itself in that time. Organizer Bayard Rustin and author James Baldwin, both openly gay at a time when being "out" was far more rare than today, took their hits along with the plaudits. One commentator says of Baldwin that "inclusion of gay themes [in his writing] resulted in a lot of savage criticism from the Black community." Another observer, speaking of the great poet Langston Hughes, said "There has been a consistent attempt to ignore or at least downplay his homosexuality because he is such a towering figure in African American literature--his icon status among the African American community is contingent on his heterosexuality."

None of this diminishes the great accomplishments of the civil rights movement and the men we continue to honor. It does point up the fact that, revolutionaries though they were, they were still products of a sexist and homophobic culture that played out in minority and majority communities alike. Just as the women's suffrage movement grew out of the failure of the abolitionist movement to recognize women's second-class status in the 19th century, the modern feminist and gay rights movements arose at least in part from the replaying of societal prejudices within the civil rights effort. And the good news is that we have all benefited in the long run.

We are not less liberated but more so by the successes of feminists and gay and lesbian people of all races and cultural backgrounds. Our understanding that bigotry damages us all is enlarged when we learn how it plays out in the lives of women, gay and transgendered people, persons with disabilities, and others at the wrong end of privilege. There can be no competition between oppressed groups when it comes to equality. I believe Coretta King and Rosa Parks would readily agree: We can each of us only be free if we all are free.

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