The civil rights movement is rich with stories about heroes and heroines—hundreds of everyday people committed themselves to change. Increasingly, this army of social warriors who transformed a racial civil rights battle into a humanistic social and political revolution is becoming more known in popular culture. Still, the average person remains hard-pressed to recall the names of activists whose last names are not King, Parks, or X. Some may, by some fortunate circumstance, be familiar with Bates, Evers, Shuttlesworth, Hamer or Baker. But there are so many more stories to tell and more people worth knowing about.
What we know about the civil rights movement continues to change and evolve. Initially it was written about as a movement created by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sparked by Rosa Parks, and led to victory by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but now the history of the black freedom struggle is understood to be more complex.
In addition to diversifying the discussion about leadership, scholars have also proven the importance of local black movements to national civil rights events, the central role of black women and youth, as well as the indispensability of organizers. Sexual orientation also has a place in the study of civil rights, but this area of inquiry usually centers on the limitations homosexuality placed on gay men and lesbian activists.
Teaching Tolerance’s lesson series, “The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement,” challenges instructors and students to rethink the ways we approach a subject matter where race, gender, sexual orientation, politics and class often intersect—and usually conflict with one another.
Conflict is a natural human interaction, especially within a revolutionary movement, and this series asks students to consider how individuals who were ostracized because of some combination of their race, gender, sexual orientation and class, found the personal and collective courage to provide leadership for a cultural revolution. James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin are examples of resilience for not just African Americans or LGBT people, but all humans.
Each of these change agents made the conscious choice to become a voice and vessel for equality and justice. Their stories are integral to the history of the United States and should be told.
John Adams is a PhD. candidate in African-American and United States History at Rutgers University in New Jersey.