As we learned in the last installment of “cool stuff Dave learned in history class,” pivotal moments in our nation’s history often take on an entirely different meaning after they happen than they had when they were happening. Let’s roll with that theme again this time. For today, let’s take a look at the Civil Rights Movement.
From our 21st century vantage point, it’s natural for us to look back on the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s and see one of the greatest liberal triumphs in our nation’s history. Perhaps the biggest contradiction in all of U.S. history, one that Americans were well-aware of from the very writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 onward, has been our simultaneous love of equality and mistreatment of African Americans. This issue has torn us at the seams for centuries – during the Revolution in the 18th century, the Civil War in the 19th, and then with the violent confrontations coming out of the Jim Crow South in the 20th. But every time that it started to rip at our national fabric, we simply patched over the hole with material so thin we were bound to have to repeat the process. That is, until the Civil Rights Movement finally laid bare our hypocrisy, forcing us to reconcile once and for all our beliefs and actions.
If you think of America as a fundamentally liberal country — which is to say a country founded on liberal principles of liberty and equality – and that it’s been working toward the perfect achievement of its ideals since its inception, then the Civil Rights Movement seems like obvious proof of this belief. Figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom and justice, political principles that changed the way white Americans conceived of and behaved toward African Americans. This in turn ushered in an era in which other minority groups began demanding and to varying extents receiving fairer treatment and greater acceptance in American society. According to this understanding, the Civil Rights Movement amounted to a pit stop on the road to a better – more liberal – nation.
Unfortunately for this viewpoint, however, historical scholarship has unearthed much insight about the nature of the Movement and its activists that contradicts this narrative arc. To begin with, Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 (American Culture), Alice Echols’s chronicle of the radical feminist movement of the 1970s, provides a sense of the prejudices and “traditional” outlooks held by Civil Rights activists themselves. As Echols reminds us, the feminist movement grew out of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the previous decades when women who participated in those causes struck out on their own as a result of their forced subordination to male leaders. But ironically, the other leftist movements of the ‘60s were pervasively sexist, not only in that the leadership was male-dominated, but also because those leaders worked to prevent women’s liberation from becoming an important political issue.
In addition to repeatedly dismissing women’s concerns as unimportant, groups like SDS and the Black Panthers employed such tactics as refusing to recognize their voices and platforms at conferences, to more loathsome approaches like catcalling at women when they were making speeches. Here’s one particularly shocking example of many protestors’ attitudes toward feminism, from an anti-Nixon rally in 1968 when feminists Marilyn Webb and Shulamith (Shullie) Firestone stood up to speak:
Almost as soon as Webb began speaking some men began chanting, “Take it off!” and “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” Webb recalls, “It was like a riot breaking out.” The crowd became even more feral when Firestone spoke. But rather than rebuking the hecklers…[conference organizer Dave] Dellinger tried to get the women off the stage. Webb remembers Dellinger asking her to “shut Shullie up.”1
But women were not the only targets of activists’ scorn. Homophobia was another pervasive problem. A recent paper by historian Ryan Hendrickson has traced perhaps the most famous example of this homophobia, the ouster of key activist and open homosexual Bayard Rustin from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s SCLC.
While Rustin had played a crucial part in organizing both the 1948 and 1963 Marches on Washington, and in the process had become King’s right-hand man, King chose to cut ties with him after Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. threatened to “leak” to the media that King and Rustin were involved in an affair (which was completely untrue). For Hendrickson, the fact that King ditched Rustin rather than sticking up for him speaks volumes about the “crisis of masculinity” creating homophobic feelings within the movement. Thus, he writes:
The specific understanding of manhood that lay at the heart of African American civil rights discourse and practice was…rooted in black males’ desire to claim ownership of their masculinity back from the warping influence of white culture, which simultaneously emasculated them and eroticized their maleness. But this desire to reclaim black manhood was often expressed as hostility towards femininity, homosexuality, and homosexual men in particular. The sources and consequences of that hostility shaped the contours of the African-American freedom struggle from the 1950s through the 1970s.1
These feelings toward homosexuality only rarely grace the historical record. But Hendrickson did dig-up one particularly revealing piece crafted by King in an advice column for Ebony magazine in 1958:
Question: My problem is different from the ones most people have. I am a boy, but I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don’t want my parents to know about me. What can I do? Is there any place where I can go for help?
Answer: Your problem is not at all an uncommon one. However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired. Your reasons for adopting this habit have now been consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed. Therefore, it is necessary to deal with this problem by getting back to some of the experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. In order to do this I would suggest you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.
Is there an inconsistency here? Was it contradictory for Civil Rights activists to fight for equality but demean women and gays?
When thinking about this question, it’s important not to be anachronistic. Just because we today possess liberal values which accept the achievements of both the Civil Rights and gay/women’s rights movements does not also mean that these movements valued one another. Likewise, we must recognize that the fact that so many of us today accept women’s equality and gay rights is exactly because of the struggles that these groups went through to break down pervasive social stigmas to gain legitimacy.
Ultimately, then, we need to keep these biases in mind when thinking about the Civil Rights Movement not because we want to undermine the movement’s significance or legitimacy, but so that we can have a greater appreciation for what American society in the 1960s was like. Once we have that, we begin to see just how significant the gains of these other movements have been in the past forty years.
photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) walking with Bayard Rustin in 1956.
1. Alice Echols, Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 (American Culture), 117.↩
2. Ryan Hendrickson, “’In Spite of All, I will Hold Nothing in My Heart Against You’: Bayard Rustin and the Role of Masculinity in the Post-War Civil Rights Movement,” 1. ↩