Campus News

April 18, 2011

Exploring the intersection of civil rights and black LGBT movements

Bayard Rustin
Topics to be examined include the historical, political and cultural framework that produced such pioneering figures as Bayard Rustin (above) and Audre Lorde. Photo by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer Stanley Wolfson.

By Margie Fishman

Until recently, the role of black gay and lesbian activists in the modern civil rights movement had been relegated to the margins of scholarship.

A new working group assembled by the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies and funded by the Arcus Foundation seeks to illuminate the vital points of intersection between the civil rights and the black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (BLGBT) movements.

The two-year, $234,000 grant is the largest awarded to Emory by the Racial Justice, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program of the Arcus Foundation, a global foundation dedicated to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"It is historic that the Arcus Foundation has taken this step," says Rudolph P. Byrd, the Johnson Institute's founding director and Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies.

The 10-member working group — the first of its kind — is composed of national scholars and experts on the civil rights and BLGBT movements. Beginning this month, they will convene at Emory for three meetings to present papers and establish a dialogue with faculty and students.

Studying the framework

Topics to be examined include the historical, political and cultural framework that produced such pioneering figures as Bayard Rustin and Audre Lorde.

Rustin, a leader of the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation, introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the method of nonviolent direct action. As a King adviser, he wrote the charter for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Emory is the custodian of the civil rights organization's archive). Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington, but was eventually forced out of King's inner circle because of his sexuality.

"This is an example of the powerful manifestation of homophobia in African American communities at the highest level," says Byrd.

Lorde rose to prominence in the emerging black queer movement of the 1970s and 1980s, delivering a historic address in 1983 on the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington.

The working group also will focus on religion's centrality in the civil rights struggle and its implications for the BLGBT movement, the effect of the AIDS pandemic on BLGBT communities and their role in shaping cultural and political debates of the 1980s and 1990s.

The research is expected to be published in a book, strengthening the relationship between academia and grassroots organizations.

International conference planned 

The culminating event will be an international conference at Emory, slated for fall 2012, where group members and invited scholars and grassroots leaders will discuss the history and evolution of the civil rights and BLGBT movements, along with receiving training in nonviolent direct action.

One of the goals of these discussions, explains Byrd, is to foster a new generation of leaders in the BLGBT movement at a time when HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact  African American communities, when prisons are not equipped to handle complex questions raised by the LGBT population, and when the political right has attempted to appropriate the civil rights movement.

These aims dovetail with the Johnson Institute's mission to examine points of convergence and divergence between the civil rights movement and other social movements.

Among the Johnson Institute's inaugural working group members is Jewelle Gomez, director of grants and community initiatives for Horizons Foundation, a San Francisco, Calif.-based organization that supports LGBT leaders and philanthropy. She is also the author of the first black lesbian vampire novel, "The Gilda Stories," along with six other books.

Gomez says she joined the group to make connections across different segments of human rights activism, leading to meaningful social change.

"If we do that, people would no longer be satisfied with their own slice-of-the-pie approach," she says. "We would start to understand that oppression is systematic, affecting a broad array of people. The more we act against each other, the more we're supporting oppression."

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