By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
On Friday, Feb. 10, I had the privilege of participating in the production of the fourth annual Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Honors at the San Diego LGBT Community Center.
Named for civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin — right-hand man to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and gay black man — this event celebrates achievement, advocacy and activism by and for the San Diego black LGBTQ community.
While, historically, each award was named for this amazing icon, it was decided that this year sub-categories would be created and named for additional leaders, which led to the establishment of the Marsha P. Johnson Emerging Activist Award; the Mandy Carter Community Mobilization Award; and the Langston Hughes Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Marsha P. Johnson and Langston Hughes were names with which I was familiar, but Mandy Carter, who I learned was recognized with a Bayard Rustin Lifetime Achievement award in 2013, was a new name to me.
In my research about Carter, I was elated to discover the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), of which she was a founding member.
Founded in 2003, the mission of NBJC is “to eradicate racism and homophobia,” with a focus on federal public policy. Housed in our nation’s capitol, they are at the nerve center of the United States’ policy-making machine, and provide both a black LGBTQ perspective to decision-makers and distribute information back to the broader black LGBTQ community.
Additionally, they regularly publish reports that center on black LGBTQ strengths and challenges, in areas such as media representation, worker’s rights, family structure, intimate partner violence, and houses of faith, among others.
I had an opportunity to chat with Carter and we definitely got “deep,” as she has a gift for drawing the stories out of others, as well as sharing of herself. For the purpose of this piece, I’ll focus on our conversations about NBJC, but I highly recommend seeking out her own stories.
For a historical perspective, it is worth mentioning the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, which produced an annual conference between the years of 1998 and 2003. It was the ending of this initiative, which took place after the final conference in August of 2003 — the same weekend as the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington — that prompted Carter and forum founder, Phill Wilson, who spoke at the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, to work with other leaders to determine how to fill the vacuum left by the program’s ending.
Marriage equality was a hot-button issue on the table and organizations began amassing their “players” on both sides of it. In May of 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had ruled that it was unconstitutional to allow only opposite-sex couples to marry. Carter recalls the effort by marriage equality opponents to divide the broader black community from its LGBTQ members, going so far as enlist Rev. Gregory Daniels, of Chicago, to appeal to the faith community.
“The opposition was comprised mostly of white members of the ‘radical right, with folks like [Jerry] Falwell of Focus on the Family, and other such groups,” Carter explained. “But they got a black preacher — and all you need is one — and had a rally in the Boston Commons. What this black minister said sent shivers down my spine, as an out black lesbian.
“What he said was, and I quote, ‘If the Klan were to ride against gays, I would ride with them.’ To hear a black male preacher make that comment showed how low a group would go to create the divide within the black community. It was chilling,” she said.
Bolstered by these tactics, NBJC responded by announcing their presence through a press conference with black same-sex couples.
“Up until this point, marriage equality had been largely viewed as a white gay priority,” Carter recalled. “But we had black gay and lesbian couples who were committed to being the face and voice of marriage equality for the broader black community.
“Now, we only had one reporter show up that day, from the Washington Post, but something critical came out of that press conference,” she continued. “The next day, Julian Bond — a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives and the president of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], and a legend, called and asked, ‘What can I do to help?’
“That was a game changer!”
The NBJC continues to be a vital and productive arm of the black LGBTQ community, with significant influence on a national level.
As polls have repeatedly shown, visibility of LGBTQ individuals engenders empathy for equality, NBJC works to create environments where it is safe for individuals to be “out” on all levels.
As I finished my conversation with Carter, we came full circle to Bayard Rustin, and the importance of him being recognized for the important leader that he was.
“One of my dreams has always been to see Rustin honored for the essential work that he did,” Carter said. “He put on the most amazing historical event of my lifetime; the 1963 March on Washington where [Martin Luther] King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. This was a queer black man who did not define himself by one issue.
“In 1993, while I worked for the Human Rights Campaign, the Bayard Rustin Commemorative Campaign was launched, supported by Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, III. This effort continued through the Bayard Rustin Commemoration Project at the National Black Justice Coalition, and finally, on the 50th anniversary of the march, Rustin received the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom [posthumously] from President Obama. For me, and for thousands of queer black people, this was an extraordinary moment!”
To find out more about the NBJC, find them online at nbjc.org.
—Ian D. Morton is the senior program analyst at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.