In the summer of 2006 I attended the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard. One of the guest presenters was ninety-five year old Johnnie Carr, the woman who took over the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1956 after the successful bus boycott when Martin Luther King, Jr. went on to form the Southern Christian Leadership Convention. Carr told stories and fielded questions. I'm not sure how the topic of gay people came up but at the mention of the word "homosexual" her face shriveled up and she moved her hand in a wide sweeping gesture, then exclaimed, "Those DISGUSTING people!" She made some inaudible comments then said the word “DISGUSTING” again. She said this even though Bayard Rustin, the man who co-founded SCLC with King, who assisted in the creation of the Committee on Racial Equality in 1942, organized the first freedom ride and the March on Washington, and helped King convert wholeheartedly to non-violence, was gay. I looked at Waldo Martin and Pat Sullivan, the two seminar leaders, and they looked away but, to their credit, they did not stop the tape recorder.
After Carr left and our group reconvened, I looked around and asked (it took no small amount of courage for me to raise this question and risk losing their respect or being seen as a troublemaker): "Did she really say that gay people were disgusting?” Everyone shrugged it off. An African American professor from North Carolina said, "Oh, that's just her generation." Martin replied, "She's a devoted church lady, that's just the way they see things." I responded, "That doesn't make it hurt any less."
Now imagine someone lobbed the same spiteful word at a black person in 1955, at a time when key constitutional rights were not yet secured and violence or at least censure was always a risk. That person's entire character would be defined as essentially racist. It would not be shrugged away, especially not now because we as a nation have come to understand the history and impact of bigotry on African Americans.-- Lisa Szefel
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