Sexuality in Color: Beyond MLK
As the new year begins and January 15th rolls around, we are soon to hear a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. We have an entire day devoted to him, in which most people revel in the fact that they have Monday off, and at best scroll past a few articles about him that show up in their newsfeeds. (Not to mention, the MLK represented in newsfeeds is usually a highly sanitized version that glosses over his radical politics in favor of a “peace and harmony” character.) Today I’d like to talk about civil rights activism beyond MLK.
Don’t get me wrong; he did some amazing things. He is widely considered to be the leader of the civil rights movement due to his speeches and organizing around issues of public segregation, unfair wages and housing practices, poverty, and war. He preached an ethic of tolerance, Christian compassion, and peaceful civil disobedience in order to affect change. He is credited with organizing the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to the Browder v Gayle decision that desegregated public buses across Alabama.
He later went on to lead the march from Montgomery to Selma, which resulted in Alabama’s racialized police brutality being widely broadcasted for the first time to a national audience. (You may remember the groundbreaking biopic Selma that came out in 2014, for which Ava DuVernay was the first black woman to get a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Director.) And King led and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, where more than 200,000 Americans gathered at the National Mall and heard him deliver his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
That being said, I want to take time here to talk about some of the other key players in the civil rights movement that aren’t often mentioned.
In learning about revered historical activists, I often find myself wondering about those who never got to share the spotlight. What about those who were fighting for social change that were of lower status, who weren’t as wealthy, religious, or palatable to the public?
Claudette Colvin was 15 years old, and went to Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama. On the afternoon of March 2nd, 1955, she got on the bus to go home from school, and took a seat in the “colored section” towards the back of the bus. Along the route, the “white section” filled up with passengers, and the bus driver told Claudette (along with the woman sitting next to her) to move further to the back of the bus, to make room for a white woman who needed a seat. Claudette refused, saying she had paid the same fare as the white woman, and deserved to stay where she was. The bus driver stopped the bus and called the police, who forcibly removed her from the bus and arrested her, charging her with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and assault. She remained strong and resilient throughout, insisting all the while that they were violating her constitutional rights.
Quick interruption – does this sound familiar?
Yes, you say. Rosa Parks, you say. She’s the one who kept her seat on the bus. She’s the one in all the history books.
But I’m here to tell you that Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to give up her seat — and neither was Claudette. The first documented individual protest of bus segregation in the U.S. was performed in 1942, by a gay civil rights activist named Bayard Rustin. Similar incidents happened with Irene Nelson, a woman traveling on an interstate bus in Middlesex County, Virginia, in 1946; Lillie Mae Bradford, a woman arrested on a Montgomery city bus in May of 1951; and Sarah Louise Keys, a Woman’s Army Corps private returning from furlough in North Carolina in August of 1952.
So why do we know the names of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King so much better than the names of these others? There are many reasons, including the notoriety that Parks and King had gained because of the scope of their activism and involvement with large organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But there are some deeper, more insidious reasons as well — folks like Rustin and Colvin were considered less desirable in the public eye.
Claudette Colvin was 15 years old at the time of her arrest, and NAACP leaders believed that she would not be a good “face” for the civil rights movement, calling her “feisty”, “mouthy”, and “emotional”. But even more scandalous were the rumors that she was pregnant with the child of an unnamed married man, although she only became pregnant after the arrest. In contrast, Rosa Parks was a secretary for the NAACP and was well-respected in the community. Because Colvin was a young girl who was pregnant out of wedlock, her bravery in the face of institutionalized racism and police brutality was essentially passed over. Colvin even remembers her mother saying to her, “let Rosa be the one; white people aren’t going to bother Rosa, they like her.” This speaks to the complicatedness of intersecting oppressions; that those involved in anti-racist work were not above shaming and ostracizing a young, unmarried pregnant girl (seemingly, without regard for whomever the adult was who willingly engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor at her expense).
Similarly, Bayard Rustin was often demonized for his sexual orientation; he was arrested in Pasadena, California in 1953 for having sex with another man in a parked car. He was originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, but pleaded guilty to the smaller crime of “sexual perversion.” After that, he was disavowed by his fellow activists, who called him “perverted” and said his queer lifestyle and activism were distracting from their movement. He was subsequently fired from his organization and made to stay behind the scenes despite the fact that he went on to advise Martin Luther King Jr., and was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington in 1953. Only in the 1980s did he really come back into the public sphere, advocating for queer rights and speaking publicly about his relationship with his longtime partner, Walter Naegle.
All of this is to say that while the words and accomplishments of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were incredibly influential and important, there were a lot of others who showed similar courage and conviction whose stories were never brought to light in the same way. In fact, these folks were directly passed over by the activist leaders in acts of misogyny, racism, and homophobia that were pervasive within these radial organizations. Even the decision to put together the Browder vs. Gayle litigation was one that involved careful analysis and selection of the “representative plaintiff” for the rest of the community. Respectability politics come into play during moments like those, and it’s worth thinking about what it means for those whose stories have been omitted from collective memory due to their marginalized status, and think about the famous activists today who may be overshadowing the work of less wealthy, conventionally attractive, or educated folks doing work behind them.
Next Monday, if you are given time off of work or school, I hope that you choose to spend some of that time learning about the folks whose vital work has not received the same amount of recognition (Watch the PBS documentary about Rustin’s life! Listen to Claudette’s story first-hand!). I know I will be.
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