As I’m sure most of you are aware, the federal government has designated February “Black History Month.” In a perfect world, we Americans would celebrate our shared past without regard to the scientifically bogus distinction of race (“from an evolutionary standpoint, we are all Africans”), but throughout most of our young nation’s existence, record of the African-American experience has been suppressed or ignored. Therefore, black history deserves particular attention. Yet a problem arises when a chapter of history becomes central to a country’s official narrative — the one taught in schools, lauded in the media, cited by politicians, and worse, adopted by black Americans themselves. The version of events gets sanitized and warped to conform to the religiosity and economic politics of black America, largely ignoring the roles socialist humanists, homosexuals, and radicals played in the Civil Rights Movement.
In popular history, the Movement is most often portrayed with very little nuance: a humble preacher and his loyal flock rallying against the racist culture of the south, boiled down to the simple matter of getting a seat at a lunch counter. Downplayed or untold is the fact that much of the essential groundwork was laid here in New York, with Harlem as a de facto capital of the Movement, and that its early leaders harbored distinctly radical views in opposition to pervasive economic, social, and legal injustices. One man you most definitely know; the two others, you may not – but all three were involved in what is considered by many to be the apex of the Civil Rights plight: the 1963 March on Washington.
A. Philip Randolph
A prominent socialist, Asa Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African-American labor union to secure a collective bargaining agreement. His organizing and lobbying efforts convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industries and subsequently pressured Harry Truman to integrate the armed forces. Randolph’s alliance with the NAACP provided that organization with much needed resources and credibility, and staged the creation of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the very group central to all civil rights legislation since the late 1950s. Randolph is the man who initially conceived the plans for the iconic 1963 march with Bayard Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (more on them later), and his connections with organized labor ensured the participation of that massive congregation. He is a signatory of the second Humanist Manifesto, an atheist moral document which, among other affirmations, calls for equal rights among the ethnicities and genders and for the reproductive rights of women. His “Freedom Budget” is a leftist economic model that focuses on the empowerment of workers. This man’s contribution to the movement cannot be overstated, yet few Americans even know who he is. His memorial bust sits ignobly and ignored in Union Station in Washington, D.C.
As an ardent black socialist and openly gay man, Bayard Rustin was an especially courageous figure. His entire identity was constantly besieged, even by members of the groups he served, yet he persisted in his fight for equality and dignity. Rustin protected the property of Japanese Americans in internment proceedings during WWII, when such an action was considered treasonous. He was a vocal proponent of gay rights while the scientific community still classified homosexuality as a disease, even as it frustrated his ambitions and drove away supporters. A genius organizer, he allied with important groups and was an essential strategist in many of the Civil Rights Movement’s direct actions. Without his contributions, historians suggest that the ’63 March on Washington might not have occurred. But because of his denigrated sexual preference — and even more damning, his profound belief that the U.S. economic system was unjust — his contributions became marginalized. Rustin’s very name has slipped into anonymity, as the standard re-telling has “agreed” to avoid praising a gay socialist.
Martin Luther King Jr.
As someone with a national holiday and monuments in his honor, one would be hard pressed to argue that Dr. King’s legacy is in any way repressed. After all, other than George Washington, the man has more U.S. streets and more American homework assignments dedicated to him than anyone else. His nonviolent activism and inclusive message is widely celebrated, but where that led him, beyond fighting racism, is rarely acknowledged. Though the source of morality was his faith, Dr. King refrained from the ugly tendency of many of his coreligionists to denounce gays and sexual health. He publicly supported his friend Bayard Rustin, even when vicious smears abounded about the nature of their relationship. He received the Margaret Sanger Award (an honor bestowed by Planned Parenthood) for his advocacy of reproductive rights. His politics were no less radical. He stood side by side with striking workers on many occasions, and died while supporting a sanitation workers strike in Memphis. He denounced the military aggression in Vietnam in the strongest terms even though it cost him political support and sowed division among his organization. King felt that the ills of racism, militarism, and poverty were inextricably linked, and that none could be addressed without confronting the others. His vision was so grand, tactics so effective, and ideas so groundbreaking, that America has yet to comprehend his profundity. We only seem to collectively remember him as the church leader who helped peacefully integrate the south — a remarkable achievement no doubt, but only a selective part of this revolutionary’s life’s work.
Many of the concerns raised by these men and others of their ilk have not yet been addressed. Supporting equality for African-Americans is a political slam dunk, but large swathes of this country still don’t afford that privilege to homosexuals. It’s easy to cite “I Have a Dream,” but less easy to heed Dr. King’s example and denounce the savage wars our country is engaged in. Many an employer will extol the Civil Rights Movement, but become hesitant when their workers seek the economic empowerment of a union.
I’m not suggesting there is some dark conspiracy that continues to suppress the true version of the Civil Rights Movement. After all, the information, though sparse in comparison, is available to all those who want to learn. The motivation for omitting certain details of Civil Rights history is simple: avoid controversy and the need for awkward reflection. “White establishment” and “black America” share responsibility for the indignities perpetuated by the unholy trinity of political, social, and religious agendas. The fact that a bunch of sexually liberated, godless “commies” were responsible for one of the greatest liberation movements in our history does not make for a simple and convenient narrative.