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.