The soul-stirring words from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech speak to the LGBT community, too, in our ongoing battle for equality
"I have a dream … ." It doesn’t take more than those four words to conjure up the image of one of America’s great heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
School children across the country memorize that portion of Dr. King’s historic speech and proudly recite it.
I remember watching that event on television as a kid. Ironically, I was sitting in front of my television watching the event with our housekeeper, Clara King (no relation to Dr. King). She and I were both riveted to the voice of Dr. King as he spoke to the thousands of people assembled on the mall.
By the time it was over, we were both in tears.
The final words of his speech were designed to inspire hope and a positive vision. But often the earlier words are forgotten, and those were not a message of hope, but a clear call to the conscience of America:
"In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check," Dr. King said.
"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."
Now imagine if you will that Dr. King had substituted the acronym "LGBT" for "Negro." In reality, I believe Dr. King wanted freedom and justice for all people.
Some may remember that one of the men who organized the march back in 1963 was Bayard Rustin, a black gay man.
Rustin was a Quaker and, as such, was very active in the anti-war movement. He was also familiar with the techniques of non-violent resistance that he shared with Dr. King and others in the movement.
His status as a relatively open gay man caused a lot of problems. Conservatives like Sen. Strom Thurmond attacked him as a "Communist, draft-dodger and homosexual."
That controversy moved some in the civil rights movement to attempt to dissociate themselves from Rustin.
Because of this, Rustin’s place in history is often ignored.
Rustin himself understood that the fight for equality would extend far beyond the initial push for civil rights and pay equality. It would lead him to testify in 1986 as New York debated a gay rights bill. In that testimony, he made it clear that the struggles of African-Americans and LGBT people were intertwined.
"Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change," Rustin said then. "Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new ‘nig***s’ are gays. … It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people."
As we enter Black History Month, maybe we should try to look at the connections between the civil rights movement and our own LGBT rights movement. After all they are about the same thing: Equality.
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. His blog is at http://dungeondiary.blogspot.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 29, 2010.