African-Americans Question Comparing Gay Rights Movement To Civil Rights

Jul 2, 2015
Originally published on July 2, 2015 6:35 pm
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The campaign for same-sex marriage rights has often been compared to the black civil rights movement of the 1960s. And that comparison has irritated many African-Americans. Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team wanted to find out why. She begins with someone who's been questioning the comparison.


Is the gay rights movement the same as the black civil rights movement? That is the distinction.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: And it's an important one for African-American television host Roland Martin because, he says, black Americans back in the '60s were more disenfranchised than LGBT people are now.

MARTIN: And so we get African-Americans in Jim Crow who couldn't vote, who couldn't stay in hotels, who couldn't stay restaurants, but if you were white and gay, you could.

BATES: Reverend Patrick Walker agrees. He pastors the New Macedonia Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He says same-sex marriage is incompatible with his faith, and like Martin, he doesn't like folding the civil rights and gay rights movements together. Walker believes white LGBT folks have always had the option, no matter how painful, to keep their orientation private and escape discrimination.

PATRICK WALKER: I'm not advocating or suggesting a don't-ask-don't-tell policy, but that is certainly a choice that the LGBT community has that African-Americans and other minorities in this country do not have.

BATES: But some veterans of the traditional civil rights movement disagree. Georgia congressman John Lewis is a revered icon of that movement, suffering brutal arrests and savage beatings in the struggle for African-American equality. In a 2014 video for the organization Freedom to Marry, Lewis firmly linked the two movements.


JOHN LEWIS: I fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and speak up against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I see the right to marriage as a civil rights issue.

BATES: Many white members of the LGBT community feel they're indebted to the civil rights movement. Before he was a professor of media studies at the University of Southern California, David Craig was a social media strategist for the marriage equality movement in that state. On a bright, windy day at a sidewalk cafe near his Los Angeles home, Craig noted this momentous Supreme Court decision came decades after another one. In 1967, the High Court decided in favor of Mildred and Richard Loving, and interracial marriage became legal throughout the country.

DAVID CRAIG: That is the basis for which we were able to secure our rights today. So in fact, we owe the African-American community and the Loving couple incredible gratitude. And that legacy stems from those fights and those battles. And we are only able to be where we are today because of the civil rights struggle.

BATES: Now that the long-cherished goal of marriage equality has been achieved, Craig says white LGBT activists should reach out to black Americans.

CRAIG: So we have an obligation now to turn to our people of color, whether LGBT or straight, and say, how can we help? We need to get you to the table. Thank you for helping us get there as well.

BATES: Former NAACP chair Julian Bond is another veteran of the civil rights movement. Like John Lewis, Bond says African-Americans should count the recent court ruling supporting marriage equality as a victory for them too. For one thing, Bonds says, there are many people who are LGBT and black. For another...

JULIAN BOND: We ought to be proud of this. Say look what we did. We created a model that other people have followed, and they followed it successfully. Good for us.

BATES: In other words, Bond says, take that credit, and own it. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.