Many accounts about the civil rights movement discuss class and gender tension within the African-American Freedom Struggle. However, the issue of sexuality, and the experiences of LGBT people, is a subject that less frequently mentioned. Most history textbooks lack inclusion of the significant contributions same-gender-loving African-Americans made to the civil rights movement. This series introduces students to four LGBT people of African descent with whom they may not be familiar, yet who were indispensable to the ideas, strategies and activities that made the civil rights movement a successful political and social revolution.
Lesson One: James Baldwin: Art, Sexuality and Civil Rights discusses how James Baldwin’s identity shaped his art and political activism. Students will read a rich New York Times obituary, written the day after Baldwin’s 1987 death from cancer, and listen to an interview conducted by National Public Radio. Far ahead of his time, unlike men such as Bayard Rustin, who worked in the shadows organizing for the civil rights movement, Baldwin was “out and proud” before that term became a popular cultural idiom. Baldwin’s life illuminates not just the intersection between gay rights and civil rights, but perhaps even more importantly, the connections among self-identification, artistic expression and political activism.
Lesson Two: Lorraine Hansberry: LGBT Politics and Civil Rights examines the battle over how history has remembered one of America’s important mid-20th century playwrights. Some African-American scholars consider Lorraine Hansberry to be a literary genius because she masked radical black politics through the construction of seemingly unthreatening African-American characters. Her 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun blazed a trail for African Americans into mainstream theatre and entertainment. While Hansberry has long been recognized as a significant figure in black history, less is known about her advocacy for lesbian and gay rights. Hansberry’s sexual orientation remains a mystery to those interested in studying her life and subversive politics. Hansberry’s sexual politics and advocacy for LGBT rights is the subject of this lesson.
Lesson Three: Pauli Murray: Fighting Jane and Jim Crow focuses on issues of justice. Murray was an accomplished lawyer and intellectual, regardless of her gender. In this lesson students will study Murray’s biography, and delve into the distinctions she made between Jim Crow and Jane Crow. This lesson explores the life, activism and ideas of a woman, African-American, and lesbian who fought discrimination in the areas of race, gender and sexuality. Murray is an overlooked figure, who was instrumental in connecting civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights.
Lesson Four: Bayard Rustin: The Fight for Civil and Gay Rights addresses the issue of activism. Rustin was not only dedicated to orchestrating the civil rights movement, he was also one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisors, and the organizer of the epic 1963 March on Washington. In this lesson students will read Rustin’s words and engage with a historian’s assessment about his activism and legacy. Rustin’s life elucidates the similarities between the modern civil rights movement and the current gay rights movement. Earlier in his life Rustin was open about his sexuality in private circles, but remained publicly silent about his homosexuality. Later in life Rustin was more vocal, and became a vociferous advocate for gay rights in ways that had eluded him in his earlier years. In this lesson students will discuss the similarities and differences between the civil rights and gay rights movements, as well as the dilemma black LGBT people often find themselves in when involved with social and political movements.