Friday, July 10, 2009

Latest Recipient of a "Rotten Tomato Award": The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

I have decided to give a rotten tomato to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- the venerable civil rights organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, among others. The SCLC earns the award because it plans to remove Reverend Eric P. Lee, the president of its Los Angeles office, because he openly supports same-sex marriage and provided advocacy against Proposition 8 (California's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage).

SCLC: A History of Progressive Advocacy
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded on principles of equality and justice. Some of the organization's most notable and important historical moments include its sponsorship of important racial justice campaigns in Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, and the Selma, Alabama voting rights movement. These events are iconic moments in United States history, and they were vital to the evolution of federal antidiscrimination law.

The Birmingham marches, for example, led to the arrest of King, black protestors, and scores of black children who stood up for justice. The infamous Bull Connor, Birmingham's "Public Safety Commissioner" and KKK member, turned police dogs and water cannons on peaceful demonstrators. After his arrest, King authored the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, one of his most detailed arguments for racial justice and peaceful protest.

The protests and the violent reaction to them by government officials in the South caused Kennedy to move rapidly towards the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (he had previously opposed broad civil rights legislation, including voting rights measures). This measure did more than Supreme Court rulings, like Brown v. Board of Education, to speed up the course of desegregation.

SCLC's Planned Removal of Lee: A Betrayal of Its Progressive Past
The SCLC's plan to remove Lee betrays the organization's rich history of progressive advocacy. Although the local Los Angeles chapter approved Lee's advocacy for same-sex marriage, Dexter Wimbush, the national organization's legal counsel, has demanded that Lee appear in Atlanta to explain why he failed to receive approval from national officials prior to his advocacy.

A New York Times article quotes Lee as stating that his support of same-sex marriage has "created tension in my life I had never experienced with black clergy. . . ." Lee, however, views same-sex marriage as a question of equality: "[I]t was clear to me that any time you deny one group of people the same right that other groups have that is a clear violation of civil rights and I have to speak up on that."

Lee has the support of his local chapter, which takes the position that each chapter acts independently of the national organization and that Lee did not need to consult the national organization prior to his advocacy. National officials have refused to comment on that specific issue.

GLBT Rights = Civil Rights
The plan to fire Lee is reflective of a broader tension within both the GLBT communities and communities of color regarding the relevance of race and sexual orientation. As Lee argues, many predominately white GLBT organizations in California failed to reach out to persons of color because they refused to consider the complexity of "liberal" voters. Furthermore, many of these groups lack racial diversity among their leadership. If they were more diverse, they would probably have greater success spreading their message across racial groups.

Racial justice groups also fail to realize that their opposition to GLBT rights contradicts the very notion of equal justice and ends up harming communities of color. As I have argued in numerous law review articles and on this blog (see links following this essay), the advocacy of GLBT rights represents a demand for equal protection and due process. Deprivations of equality and due process, by contrast, were an inherent aspect of racial subordination facilitated by law (and private violence). Accordingly, when communities of color take conservative positions on gay rights, they legitimate many of the same arguments and abuses that were used to justify and foster racial inequality.

Taking notice of this fact does not require anyone to equate race and sexual orientation. There are differences between "gay" and "racial" experiences, and the groups themselves do not have singular experiences. Nevertheless, civil rights law must operate with flexibility in order to account for new social problems. Even people of color do not suffer the same problems that they encountered in the past. Oprah Winfrey is not a slave, but certainly this does not justify racial discrimination against her. When people of color reject GLBT rights on the grounds that homophobia is not like racism, they imply that civil rights law should operate narrowly and rigidly - a position that, unfortunately, harms persons of color.

Furthermore, when people of color oppose GLBT rights, they validate discrimination against members of their own communities. The question of GLBT rights and persons of color, therefore, does not only involve one group hurting another, as Lee says. Instead, it also often means that one group is hurting itself.

King's Legacy and GLBT Rights
Finally, Lee says that King would be "turning over in his grave" if he were aware of the plan to discharge him for embracing equal protection. I agree. Although King did not live long enough to consider the question of sexual orientation discrimination in contemporary terms, his wife, Coretta Scott King embraced, GLBT rights on many occasions prior to her death. She also supported same-sex marriage and civil unions, and she explicitly linked her support for GLBT rights to King's statement that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. . . ."

Furthermore, while he was alive, King included Bayard Rustin, a black gay man, within his inner circle. Rustin was the principle architect of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was a close advisor and strategist for King. Reflecting the valid fears of this period in history, however, King did not allow Rustin -- a gay man, socialist, anti-war activist -- to take public credit for the march. Nevertheless, King's important collaboration with Rustin certainly complicates the notion that he would necessarily take positions endorsing anti-gay bigotry. Today's SCLC needs to revisit and learn from its own history and legacy.

Correction: This article has been corrected to delete language that described Rustin as an "atheist." Although some web references describe Rustin as an atheist, the weight of authority confirms that he was a Quaker.

Related reading on Dissenting Justice:

Would Obama Have Won If He Were Black...and Gay?

Anti-Gay Group Thanks Obama, Seeks to Exploit Black Homophobia to Constitutionalize Bigotry

Black Californians and Proposition 8: Is White Gay Anger Justifiable?

For more analysis, see:

Pam's House Blend: MLK civil rights org seeks to boot president of the LA chapter for marriage equality support.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hutchinson: It certainly does put SCLC's national leadership in a pickle. I would like to know how much effort Lee made to acquaint the national leadership with his planned advocacy. If national was blindsided, they have a point to objecting. People dislike being drafted to support a point of view even if they support it on the merits, without being consulted first.

If Lee did try to get them on board, and national refused to go along, both sides are in a pickle. Lee's conscience won't let him stop; national's bureaucratic soul won't let SCLC go along. That ripens a situation that neither side shold want, if for no other reason than it weakens everyone's influence and makes fissures more likely.

I don't think Coretta Scott King can speak for King on this issue. "gayness" wasn't on the national table in the way segregation was while King was alive, maybe not for several years later. King might have gone along with gayness (I thhink this likely), but maybe not. He was beginning to come round to radical change economically when he was killed in a way that he didn't support ten years earlier. I think it's fair to look at this change in his viewpoint and attribute the economic change of 1968 to growth coming from his roots. I don't think you can see King's evolution toward "gayness" clearly at all. But given his background, it is certainly possible.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Greg - This looks particularly bad because Lee supported the issue in his individual capacity. Of course he is a community figure associated with the group, but he did not say that the national organization supported same-sex marriage. Julian Bond, the head of the NAACP, also publicly endorses same-sex marriage.

I never said that Coretta Scott King "spoke" for her husband, and I specifically acknowledge that he was unable to discuss sexual orientation in contemporary terms. Nevertheless, if ANYONE has any close insight on his values, his wife did.

Finally, you ignored the discussion of Bayard Rustin. Many black leaders at the time -- and today -- would not have been closely associated with an openly gay man. In fact, many of King's other advisors told him to end his connection to Rustin.

Aspasia said...

In my experience, I have noticed that many (though not all) older generation African-Americans voice objections to civil rights extending to other minorities. They do not feel as though these other groups have "earned" it and resent the easier time they are having. One of my mother's close friends is the epitome of this attitude. She especially hates Hispanics "sliding in here with no problem" and detests any comparison of Civil Rights to LGBTQI rights. Though I am not a church goer, I am surrounded by them and most if not all, echo the sentiments of my mother's friend as well as the SCLC. So hearing this story was not at all surprising to me.

*sigh* I've asked her what the point was of fighting for civil rights and an end to racism if every group and every generation has to do the same thing. No answer...naturally, because there is not one to give.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Aspasia: I agree with you. One thing I like to tell people is that blacks today have not had to fight like blacks in the past, and even all blacks in the past did not endorse activism. So, by the standards that some blacks articulate for other groups (like your mother and her friends), then blacks today do not deserve civil rights.

The other point I would make is that they have a very narrow view of civil rights. The black civil rights movment in the United States was not the first freedom struggle. Other groups (including blacks in other countries) resisted oppression. Slavery ended in other countries -- like Haiti -- before the United States, due to resistance. Dr. King often quoted Ghandi as an influence.

Also, the very principles that the "founders" of the USA espoused, but did not extend to women, poor people or blacks, created a language for the civil rights movement and for abolitionists. Frederick Douglass and Dr. King often made appeals to the Constitution as a validating their activism.

So, my point (after all of that) is that every generation stands on the work of others. The argument that blacks have singularly created formal racial equality is absolutely false. This does not take away from the sacrifices that blacks made. Instead, it recognizes that it took many engaged individuals, organizations and countries to make it happen.

PS: The notion that basic equality requires "fighting" that an indiviudal prove that he or she is worthy of it is a bankrupt concept.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Another thing: the notion that Latinos have not fought for equality is historically inaccurate. Your mother's friend apparently knows very little about the history of the Southwest. Also, the feminist movement fought alongside abolitionists. So, when I hear this argument applied to women, it is equally disturbing.

Nell said...

Darren, you made the point about women's contribution to civil rights before I could. Women, indeed, were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Not only women of color such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, but white women who devoted their lives to the cause of equal rights for both women and blacks--women like Susan B. Anthony, sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Mary Livermore, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe and many others.

Sadly, while black men were granted the right to vote in 1870, none of these women lived to be able to exercise the franchise. Women had to "wait their turn" for another 50 years. Kinda reminds me of a certain election season....

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Nell thanks for the post. I would amend your comment, however, to say that black men were given "formal" voting rights in 1870, but this remained a formality in most parts of the South until the 1960s. Once the federal troops left the South and Reconstruction ended, voting became (even more) dangerous for southern blacks.

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