The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement

This lesson series introduces students to four key figures in LGBTQ history who made incredible contributions to the civil rights movement: James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin.
Grade Level

Most history textbooks lack inclusion of the significant contributions LGBT African-Americans made to the civil rights movement. This series introduces students to four LGBT people of African descent with whom they may not be familiar, yet who were indispensable to the ideas, strategies and activities that made the civil rights movement a successful political and social revolution.

Lesson One: James Baldwin: Art, Sexuality and Civil Rights discusses how James Baldwin’s identity shaped his art and political activism. Students will read a New York Times obituary, written the day after Baldwin’s 1987 death from cancer, and listen to an interview conducted by National Public Radio. Far ahead of his time, Baldwin was “out and proud” before that term became a popular cultural idiom. Baldwin’s life illuminates not just the intersection between gay rights and civil rights, but perhaps more important, the connections among self-identification, artistic expression and political activism.

Lesson Two: Lorraine Hansberry: LGBT Politics and Civil Rights examines the battle over how history has remembered one of the United States’ important mid-20th century playwrights. Some scholars consider Lorraine Hansberry to be a literary genius because she masked radical black politics through the construction of seemingly unthreatening African-American characters. Her 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, blazed a trail for African Americans into mainstream theater and entertainment. While Hansberry has long been recognized as a significant figure in black history, less is known about her advocacy for lesbian and gay rights. Hansberry never publically shared her sexual orientation, but she is often described as a closeted lesbian by those who have studied her life and politics. Hansberry’s sexual politics and advocacy for LGBT rights is the subject of this lesson.

Lesson Three: Pauli Murray: Fighting Jane and Jim Crow focuses on issues of justice. Murray was an accomplished lawyer and intellectual. In this lesson, students will study Murray’s biography and delve into the distinctions she made between Jim Crow and Jane Crow. This lesson explores the life, activism and ideas of a woman, African American and lesbian who fought discrimination in the areas of race, gender and sexuality. Murray, an overlooked figure, was instrumental in connecting civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights.

Lesson Four: Bayard Rustin: The Fight for Civil and Gay Rights addresses the issue of activism. Rustin was not only dedicated to orchestrating the civil rights movement; he was also one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisors, and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. In this lesson, students will read Rustin’s words and engage with a historian’s assessment about his activism and legacy. Rustin’s life elucidates the similarities between the modern civil rights movement and the current gay rights movement. Earlier in his life, Rustin was open about his homosexuality in private circles, but remained publicly silent about it. Later in life, Rustin was more vocal and became an advocate for gay rights in ways that had eluded him in his earlier years. In this lesson, students will discuss the similarities and differences between the civil rights and gay rights movements.

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