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Mississippi civil rights era struggle

‘Queer’ activists, Black and white, led the way

Published Mar 18, 2006 10:27 PM

State repression flowing from the gay-bashing, anti-communist Cold War witch hunt of the 1950s didn’t really gear up in Mississippi until the 1960s, says John Howard, a white researcher of U.S. Southern “queer” history. When Howard uses the term “queer,”he is including the whole population of those who experience homosexual desire and or engage in male-male sex, but do not necessarily identify as “gay.”

Howard focused on non-heterosexuality between males in rural Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, in his ground-breaking book, “Men Like That—A Southern Queer History.”

He concluded, “Queer sex in Mississippi was not rare. Men-desiring-men were neither wholly isolated nor invisible. From the most secluded farms in Smith County to the densest neighborhoods of the capital, Jackson, homosexuality flourished between close friends and distant relatives; casual sex between strangers was clandestine but commonplace. Androgyny, though doubly suspect, also thrived.”

Although broad media coverage of the 1955 gay-bashing murder of John Murrett, a white Jackson, Miss., interior decorator, had created fear, the greatest terror was unleashed by the police in an era thought of nationally as the “free love sixties,” not the “conformist fifties.”

But the mid-sixties police crackdown, Howard noted, demonstrated the prevalence of homosexuality “within the ranks of upper-, middle-, and working-class Mississippi.”

These police raids, carried out against white gay men in public gathering spaces, coincided with efforts by the white business class to resist the impact of the passage of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the ongoing demands to dismantle the rest of Jim Crow apartheid.

What was the relationship between the Black-led struggle for national liberation and the police entrapment and imprisonment of white men having same-sex relations?

Howard explained, “By 1965 homosexuality was linked to the specter of racial justice—what white authorities understood as the most serious threat to the status quo. Queer Mississippians black and white found themselves in increasingly politicized positions. With the bravery earned in lives of local struggle and everyday resistance, they moved onto the public stage, determined to win a legitimacy and equity so long denied them.”

At the forefront of struggle

African Americans in Mississippi had to battle Jim Crow segregation after the overturning of post-Civil War, Reconstruction laws which had lead to many political gains for Black people. The 1890 state constitution reestablished white rule which was enforced by the Klan’s violence.

The first freedom riders, who arrived in Jackson on May 24, 1961, were predominantly white youth who had traveled to Mississippi to aid Black activists in their statewide efforts against white supremacist segregation. Regional newspapers characterized the riders as “gay crowds.”

In the summer of 1964, more than 1,000 youths—also mostly white college students from the North—arrived to help Black voters roll aside weighty racist obstacles to registration. Again, business owners used their newspapers and politicians to gay bait—including crudely bigoted references to gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin—in order to threaten activists. Since love between people of the same sex and love between people of different nationalities were both illegal, gay-baiting and condemnation of inter-racial relationships were literally attempts to criminalize civil rights workers.

“[T]he White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi most explicitly linked civil rights activism and communism to male homosexuality. ... Communists, homosexuals, and Jews, fornicators and liberals and angry blacks—infidels all,” Howard wrote.

There was an element of truth to this charge: There were many gay and lesbian and Jewish activists in the ranks of the civil rights movement, and many communists—and some were all of the above.

But this was true not just of many who rode the buses into Mississippi to build the struggle, it was true of those born and raised in the state, as well. Howard said, “Support for sexual difference existed alongside varied reformist tendencies within the movement. And in the heart of the lynching and Bible Belt, queer Mississippians were at the forefront of the civil rights struggle.”

Aaron Henry, for example, state leader of the NAACP, was busted by police for homosexual “sodomy” or disorderly conduct at least four times. After Medgar Evers was gunned down in 1963, Henry was the most renowned Black leader in the state for more than three decades.

With many “queer” Mississippians—Black and white—in the leadership and ranks of the civil rights struggle, in the mid-1960s police unleashed a campaign of violence and repression against the sexually- and gender-marginalized.

“The year 1965 crystallized both a successful civil rights movement and a nascent queer visibility in Mississippi,” Howard wrote. “The two were commingled—both in practice and in alarmist rhetoric designed to thwart them. ... Many battles were yet to be fought. But racial and sexual minorities appeared ever more prepared and inspired for struggle.”

The police and courts began targeting men inside and outside the movement who were believed to be gay. A campaign of mass arrests targeted white men who were entrapped by cops in public toilets in Jackson and Hattiesburg.

This police campaign continued in Jackson during the 1970s, with the harassment of gay males—mostly white, but also Black men—in Smith Park. Aaron Henry was arrested in one of the park raids.

So was Eddie Sandifer, a staunch white anti-racist, born the son of a Baptist preacher in a rural Louisiana parish. Sandifer identified himself as a Trotskyist and “a strong believer in armed revolution.” He was a tireless grassroots organizer who was instrumental in founding the first lesbian and gay political group in the state—the Mississippi Gay Alliance (MGA).

“Though homosexuality and gender insubordination clearly weren’t just a white thing,” Howard concluded, “gay political organizing for the most part was.”

When the MGA set up patrols of the park to monitor police actions, however, they counted among their supporters “ministers, lawyers, reporters, young and old, from babes in arms to 75 years old, male and female, black and white, gay and straight.”

Next: National liberation struggles—in U.S. and around the world—also inspired militant demand for sexual and gender liberation.