Michelle Obama received loads of praise last month when, at an event for gay Democrats, the potential first lady said, “We are all only here because of those who marched and bled and died, from Selma to Stonewall, in the pursuit of a more perfect union.”
The “Selma” of which Mrs. Obama spoke refers to a 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, when police beat back civil rights activists trying to march to Montgomery as a protest to a black teenager’s shooting. The event immediately became known as Bloody Sunday. The “Stonewall” of which Mrs Obama spoke, of course, refers to the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, widely seen as the launch of the contemporary gay rights movement. With that geographical reference, Obama sought to – and succeeded in – linking the civil and gay rights movements. The crowd – and the press – went wild, but not everyone agrees with Obama’s optimism.
Racism and homophobia, some believe, are so completely and utterly different that drawing a comparison between the two amounts to a mortal political sin. That’s a perfectly reasonable argument. Race and sexuality have exceedingly divergent histories in the United States, and thus result in entirely different emotional experiences. White people can’t understand anti-black sentiment anymore than straight people can comprehend homophobia.
Black, gay people have felt both, of course, which puts the National Black Justice Coalition in a precarious position.
[Gay and civil rights activists have both come to blows with coppers.]
Straddling the civil and gay divide, the DC-based non-profit hopes to bridge the divide between the respective rights movements. And, in many ways, they are succeeding. In the mere four years since its founding, the NBJC has collaborated with big-wig groups like the NAACP, HRC, the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, dozens of churches and the Congressional Black Caucus. Despite these successes, the NBJC’s evolution hasn’t been without its hiccups, says Executive Director H. Alexander Robinson, “I think that our inability or our unwillingness to compartmentalize our experience as African-Americans from our experience as gay and lesbian people has caused some tension.” If those tensions can be eased, however, the NBJC and its allies could change the face of the American political landscape.
The National Black Justice Coalition’s seeds took root in those fearsome years leading up to the 2004 presidential election, a time when anti-gay wedge politics dominated the national agenda. Marriage became the hot button topic and everyone seemed to have an opinion on the matter, but not everyone was getting equal time. Frustrated by the dearth of gay, black representation in the arena – and even more so by conservative black churches’ collusion with the right wing – a group of dedicated activists, led by journalist Keith Boykin, came together to discuss their mutual challenges. And, as Robinson explains, the meeting put a daunting task into even greater relief.
At the time, it was really more of an initiative than an organization – an initiative to put forth a greater voice and visibility. It became very clear once it started that there were a wide range of issues that needed to be addressed. Establishing the organization was a way of accomplishing those tasks.
The nascent NBJC’s scope couldn’t simply cover marriage rights, nor were religious debates sufficient – although there would be plenty of both. They needed a wider net. Hate crimes, racism, homophobia, trans rights – all and more must be addressed. These issues of course required specific – and timely – actions, but the group also adopted a more universal, historically successful approach to opposition.
Of all the group’s leaders, it is perhaps religious outreach and constituency director Sylvia Rhue who most concisely articulates the NBJC’s core philosophy. Rhue, who traces her activist roots back to a chance encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr, explains:
We’re always reaching out to people who may not be on our side culturally or theologically. A persuasive argument has to come from the heart. It has to be spontaneous, because then it’s more authentic. We just talk about the truth of our lives and that’s really profound enough sometimes. Your personal experience can’t be refuted.
Nor can reality. And the reality of their situation – and resources – required the National Black Justice Coalition to live up to the latter part of their name, a task easier said than done.