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Black movement raised hopes of all downtrodden

Published Feb 12, 2006 10:19 PM

Although the 1955 founding of the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco-a group of predominantly white professional and middle-class women—was the first time lesbians organized on a national level to win some political rights, it was not the first time same-sex loving, bisexual and/or cross-dressing women had raised their voices loud enough to be heard in the United States.

No voices could have been sweeter or clearer than those of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and many other powerful Black women performers and authors. Their prominence did not offer them sanctuary.

Cops busted into Ma Rainey’s home while she was holding a women’s party. Bessie Smith had to bail her out of jail the next morning. Later ads for Rainey’s recording of “Prove It on Me Blues” showed a Black woman in a “man’s” hat, tie and suit coat, chatting with two feminine women. Behind them, watching them, is a cop.

It was the Harlem Renaissance that lifted up these voices, along with the strong and poetic articulation of Black gay and bisexual men like Richard Bruce Nugent, Alaine Locke, Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman.

The rent parties, buffet flats and other forms of community social and economic organization, from Chicago to Baltimore, Detroit to D.C. and throughout the South helped create a political network for those who were “in the life.”

Harlem’s drag balls, which dated back to the late 19th century and continued during the early Harlem Renaissance, drew many thousands, rivaling those held at Madison Square Garden.

African-American scholar and historian Henry Louis Gates concludes that the Harlem Renaissance “was surely as gay as it was black.”

In 1949, James Baldwin tried to spark a public dialogue across the country about the struggle against racism and anti-gay bigotry in his essay “Preservation of Innocence.”

Baldwin wrote, “We are forced to consider tension between God and nature and are thus confronted with the nature of God because He is man’s most intense creation and it is not in the sight of nature that the homosexual is condemned, but in the sight of God. This argues a profound and dangerous failure of concept, since an incalculable number of the world’s humans are thereby condemned to something less than life; and we may not, of course, do this without limiting ourselves. … Experience, nevertheless, to say nothing of history, seems clearly to indicate that it is not possible to banish or to falsify any human need without ourselves undergoing falsification and loss.”

Baldwin published fiction in 1951, 1953 and 1956 that also dealt with homosexuality.

The civil rights movement qualitatively accelerated in 1955. This dynamic stage of the ongoing struggle for long-denied democratic rights and national liberation helped inspire and buoy many in the U.S. and around the world who longed for social and economic justice.

Lesbians and gay men of many nationalities were inspired by the struggle and played an important role in the movement against Jim Crow segregation and other forms of national oppression.

The late Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., later recalled, “Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma; in Albany, Ga.; and St. Augustine, Fla., and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.” (Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1998)

‘Thank you sister Rosa Parks’

1955—the year that Daughters of Bilitis formed the first national network for lesbian rights—the African-American civil rights movement shook up the whole country. Black working women, visible in the leadership, showed that oppression could be fought.

That was the summer that 14-year-old Emmett Till was dragged from his bed and lynched by white supremacists while he was visiting in Mississippi. His mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River. His murder was the third lynching of an African-American male that year.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, with courageous resolve, demanded an open casket with full publicity at his funeral in Chicago. “I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till,” she said. More than 50,000 people lined up to view his body, left unrecognizable by torture and mutilation. Newspapers across the country carried photos.

Ebony magazine later wrote that the decision by Mamie Till Mobley to open the casket “helped mobilize a fighting spirit in Black people nationally that helped spark and fuel the Civil Rights Movement.”

One hundred days after Till was lynched, seamstress/activist Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., municipal bus to a white man. Parks said she was thinking of the lynching of young Till. She later told a reporter, “I just could not get the pictures of Emmett Till out of my mind.”

Parks’ defiance of Jim Crow segregation, the law of the land, lit the tinder of civil rights organizing and anti-lynching efforts already going on in the Deep South. Her arrest launched a 381-day Montgomery bus boycott in which 40,000 Black people, mostly all working people, fought the segregationist bosses.

Their hard-fought-for, hard-won victory brought momentum to the mass civil rights movement throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s to break the shackles of Jim Crow apartheid.

But wherever the civil rights struggle made gains, the FBI and other repressive police agencies used gay-baiting, as well as red-baiting, to try to break up the movement against racism.

Next: FBI brandishes weapons: red-baiting and gay-baiting.