On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most visionary speeches of the twentieth century. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 250,000 assembled for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the civil rights leader issued a stirring call for equality and social justice. “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” he intoned.
In 1983, in the months leading up to the twentieth anniversary of the march and King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, a coalition of civil rights groups met to plan a public commemoration in the U.S. capital. Ironically, leaders of the nation’s LGBT community were excluded from participating.
The event’s national director, Baptist minister Walter Fauntroy—who also served as the District of Columbia’s delegate to Congress—said the presence of homosexuals would be “divisive,” and that allowing gay leaders to share a stage with blacks and other leaders of progressive causes might be interpreted as advocacy of a gay way of life. LGBT civil rights had as much legitimacy as “penguin rights,” he said.
Sit-in Leads to Arrests
Three days before the march, four gay men—three of whom were African American—were arrested for staging a sit-in at Fauntroy’s office. The arrests made national headlines. In Los Angeles, activist Charles Stewart, then a leader of the interracial group Black and White Men Together, was monitoring the ongoing dispute. He discussed the protest in a telephone interview I recorded for IMRU, a weekly gay and lesbian radio program at KPFK in Southern California.
The audio recording of the interview has been preserved thanks to the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California. Listen to the interview:
At the time of the interview, it appeared that Fauntroy and Donna Brazile, another organizer, would remain steadfast in their efforts to exclude gays and lesbians. But the irony of black protesters staging a sit-in to gain the right to participate in a commemoration of the March on Washington was not lost on other African American leaders. Coretta Scott King was among those who successfully lobbied on behalf of the LGBT community, and poet Audre Lorde was given 3 minutes to address the gathering.
In the interview, Stewart was quick to counter the notion that there was a rift between the African American and LGBT communities. He noted that 17 of the 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus —including Fauntroy—had endorsed a federal civil rights measure for gays and lesbians. But tensions between the two communities often kept them from effectively coalescing during the 1980s (and well into the new millennium).
The four men arrested in Fauntroy’s office were Mel Boozer, head of the National Gay Task Force, who died of an AIDS related illness in 1987, Ray Melrose, former president of the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gay Men, Phil Pannell, a Democratic Party activist and Washington D.C. commissioner, and gay activist Gary Walker.