“Selma” Makes a New Generation of LGBTQ Activists Stand Up

by Rev . Irene Monroe

If Bayard Rustin were alive today he certainly would have been proud as Boston’s LGBTQ communities held discussions on the film Selma.

Flashback Sunday, a social group for LGBTQ Elders of Color and their friends, and the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (HBGC) convened “an honest and open dialogue” between intergenerational LGBTQ activists. Folks who were active during 1960’s civil rights era and today’s LGBTQ “Black Lives Matter” activists met at the historic Emmanuel Church in Boston as a way of honoring the twenty-ninth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Emmanuel Church works at the nexus of Christianity and LGBTQ justice.

For the first time an intergenerational and interracial gathering of LGBTQ voices met and created a paradigm of how future discussions should take place.

Selma is about King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights for African Americans in the South. Rustin was an integral part of King’s efforts that Ava DuVernay’s film depicts. A lot of what Rustin endured and learned as an openly gay activist is still with those unsung LGBTQ activists of King’s era.

During the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin—the strategist and chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted MLK onto a world stage—was always the man behind the scenes, mostly due to the fact that he was gay.

Since the Ferguson protests of last summer (resulting from the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, one of several unarmed African American males killed by police that year) a younger generation of activists has emerged. Some have questioned their tactics. For example, in promoting Selma, producer Oprah Winfrey set off a firestorm with her comments to People magazine stating that “Black Lives Matter” activists lack leadership.

Oprah’s remarks, however, resonated with a generation that’s shaped by a heterosexist male-dominated movement rather than a non-hierarchical, diffuse model with an intersectional analysis that “Black Lives Matter” activists are illustrating.

But this is not the first time younger and older generations locked horns.

In the film, we see that future House Representative John Lewis and his group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, didn’t always see eye-to-eye with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on how to move forward on voting rights in Selma.

Corey Yarborough, co-founder of HBGC, saw both the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the release of Selma as an opportunity.

“HBGC and Flashback Sunday wanted to begin bridging the generational divide in Black and Latino LGBTQ communities of color, by bringing together community members of all ages to discuss our history…sheds light on how young leaders were groomed to take power and transform the very institutions that once oppressed them.”

Many from Yarborough’s generations stated they went to see “Selma” to see the film’s connection to Ferguson. Yarborough says: “It’s my hope to pull the inspiration and lessons learned from these civil rights icons and encourage a new generation of leaders.”

They came to the event looking for a way to make connections, to find clues and tidbits on how to be in the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“It was inspiring to have LGBTQ people in the room who lived through many of the events in the film and could speak to their personal experiences with it,” said Quincey Roberts, Yarborough’s partner and co-founder of HBGC.

And Charles Evans was one of them. Evans was born and raised in the South in the small town of Wallace, North Carolina (population 3,880 at the 2010 census), which are several miles from the big port city of Wilmington. Evans shared with the group that he “never went to an integrated school.” He explained, “I remember the KKK growing up, riding at the back of the bus and whites using the n-word for my name.”

Evans attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (NC A&T), a historically black college, in Greensboro, NC, which was one of the hot spots during the 1960’s civil rights era. Evans not only remembers the sit-ins that became an iconic form of civil disobedience but he was actively engaged in them.

“I was afraid. We all were but it was our clarion call for action.”

And those actions paid off. On February 1, 2010 the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM) opened in Greensboro, North Carolina, honoring the courageous action of four African-American students. Their actions led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated desegregation of all public accommodations.

Fifty-five years ago on February 1, 1960, the now ICRCM was a Woolworth’s store and the site of the original sit-in where Ezell A. Blair Jr. (also known as Jibreel Khazan), David Leinhail Richmond, Joseph Alfred McNeil, and Franklin Eugene McCain from NC A&T) sat at its lunch counter as a form of non-violent direct action protesting the store’s segregated seating policy.

As a result of their civil disobedience, sit-ins sprung up not only in Greensboro but throughout the South, challenging other forms of this nation’s segregated public accommodations, including bathrooms, water fountains, parks, theaters, and swimming pools, to name a few.

For a younger generation of African-Americans, people of color as well as whites, whose ballots help elect this country’s first African-American president Evans stated he could have never fathomed “a black man in the White House.”

Evans’ clarion call to those in the room was to vote.

“I had to know the preamble to vote, too,” Evans stated referring to the scene in Selma where Annie Cooper (played by Oprah) goes to register to vote and is denied.

The film Selma is unquestionably a call to action. It invites white allies, like Bob Linscott, Assistant Director of the LGBT Aging Project that operates out of The Fenway Institute, to reflect and act in intergenerational and interracial ways that will keep them ever vigilant of other isolated and oppressed groups.

Selma calls each one of us, regardless of race, gender or orientation, to action if we care to listen. What Edmund Pettus Bridges are we called to cross? For me it is to encourage those of us living comfortably in privileged positions in liberal cities to carry our work to the rural communities to help elders and those without a community find their voice.”

For the first time ever an intergenerational and interracial gathering of LGBTQ voices of color and our allies came together creating the paradigm of how future discussions should take place with an amazing younger generation of LGBTQ activists’ fierce commitment toward civil rights for all Americans.

“I thank God to see this moment with you all and to share it with a younger generation,” Evans told the group.

“While representing themselves as openly LGBTQ individuals they clearly understand the struggles of their forefathers and how they stand on the shoulders of so many unsung heroes who paved the way for them,” Paul Glass, head of Flashback Sunday, proudly shared with me. His partner, Charles Evans, is one of them.

Photo via flickr user Dave Bledsoe