Back to Inquiry Set

March on Washington, 1983. Article title: Gay presence scattered at King march

In 1983, a large public march was planned in Washington DC to celebrate racial progress for African Americans and protest racism still present in society. Marches such as this have been an important part of African American history, especially during the desegregation era of the 1950s and 1960s. While planning the march, a number of black gay organizations asked to be included in the march. This caused controversy. Some of the march organizers supported letting gay people in the march, while some of them opposed the idea. This article is also available through the DC Public Library Special Collections.
Chibbaro, Lou, Jr.
30568
Newspaper
ONE Archives

The Washington Blade, "Gay presence scattered at King march." September 9, 1983. ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

In 1983, a large public march was planned in Washington, DC, to celebrate racial progress for African Americans and protest racism still present in society. Marches such as this have been an important part of African American history, especially during the desegregation era of the 1950s and 1960s. While planning the event, a number of black gay organizations asked to be included in the march. This caused controversy. Some of the march organizers supported letting gay people in the march, while some of them opposed the idea. As you read this document, consider the arguments for and against black inclusion in the march, and consider the lengths to which the gay organizations had to go to in order to finally be included. Also note the prominent role of writer and poet Audre Lorde, who advocated for black rights, women’s rights, and gay rights all at the same time. She was one of the most famous openly lesbian African Americans of the era. Note her message of solidarity between black organizations and gay organizations, echoing the message of Huey Newton in 1970.

The controversy described in this article provides an insightful peek into mainstream African American attitudes toward LGBTQ people in the early 1980s. The document can be compared to the Huey Newton document in interesting ways. Note the progress from 1970 to 1983: Newton was a chorus of one in advocating for a black/gay alliance in 1970, but by 1983 many mainstream black leaders had become openly, even enthusiastically supportive of gay rights, perhaps most notably Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. Note also the hesitation that still existed in embracing gay people in the black community, evidenced by the “sit-in” that was required to be included in the parade. The scale of controversy is notable considering how small the gay contingent actually was, just a few hundred people out of 250,000. The organizational chaos described in the article was common for many grassroots organizations, especially LGBTQ groups. Audre Lorde is a very important figure in LGBTQ history, and one of a handful of openly black lesbians with a substantial body of published written work. Her poems are powerful and deal with issues of gender, race, and sexual identity in fascinating ways. Teachers can find them online; many are appropriate for the classroom. Teachers may also consider showing film footage of Audre Lorde, as she was a witty and sophisticated speaker. The classic documentary Before Stonewall, for example, includes excellent footage of her.

September 9, 1983 - THE WASHINGTON BLADE - 5
NEWS
Gay presence scattered at King march
by Lou Chibbaro Jr.

The August 27 March for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom "openly joins" the black civil rights movement and the Gay civil rights movement, black Lesbian author Audre Lorde told a rally at the Lincoln Memorial following the march.

Lorde's brief speech at the event came late in the afternoon when more than
half of the 250,000 persons who attended the march were driven from the mall by the sweltering Washington heat. Nevertheless, Lorde and other Gay spokespersons said the inclusion of an openly Gay speaker at the event marked an important milestone in efforts to link Gay rights with the overall rights movement.

"I am Audre Lorde, speaking for the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gay Men," Lorde said, in opening her speech during the "litany" section of the rally.
"We marched in 1963 With Dr. Martin Luther King, and dared to dream that freedom would include us, because not one of us is free to choose the terms of our living until all of us are free to choose the terms of our living," she said.

"Today the black civil rights movement has pledged its support for Gay civil rights legislation," Lorde said. "And today; we march again, Lesbians and Gay men and our children, standing in our own names together with all our struggling sisters and brothers here and around the world.... "
The decision by march leaders to allow Lorde to speak followed an intensive lobbying -effort, led by the National Coalition of Black Gays, to reverse an earlier decision believed to have been orchestrated by D.C. Delegate Waiter Fauntroy to bar Gays from speaking at the Lincoln Memorial rally.

The decision also followed a sit-in staged by members of the Coalition of Black Gays at Fauntroy's Capitol Hill office which led to the arrest of four Gay men on charges of illegal entry.
Fauntroy later dropped the charges against the men, but not before they spent the night in jail.

The four who participated in the sit- in—Gay activists Ray Melrose, Melvin Boozer, Phil Pannell, and Gary
Walker—said they viewed the incident as ironic, noting that the same type of non-violent civil disobedience was used by Fauntroy and others 20 years earlier.
"We're fighting for the same civil rights that they fought for," said Melrose. "I find it interesting that Congressman Fauntroy had us arrested."

Gay participation in the march, meanwhile, included a contingent of about 300 that marched under such banners as the Coalition of Black Gays, the D.C. Gay Activists Alliance, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the National Gay Task Force, and the Gay Rights National Lobby. Groups from New York, Boston, and other East coast cities also joined the Gay contingent.

Other Gay groups and contingents were spotted along the march route in separate locations. National Coalition of Black Gays President Gil Gerald said the confusion caused by the large numbers of persons attending the march made it impossible for all Gay groups to meet in a single location. Gerald said he did not know the total number of Gays who attended the event.

Gerald and others said publicly about the initial reluctance of march leaders to allow a Gay speaker discouraged some Gays from participating. Confusion resulting from a lack of clear directions on the part of march leaders to where the Gay contingent, as well as other contingents, should meet
on the mall, also have contributed to the "scattering" of Gays throughout the march, some march participants said.

Confusion caused by the last minute agreement to allow Lorde to speak also nearly resulted in Lorde being barred from the speakers' platform.

Lorde reported that she had not been issued credentials and was forced to spend most of the afternoon of the rally attempting to convince march officials that she should be allowed on the stage.
While Lorde’s eventual speech capped a two week long effort by Gay activists to obtain full participation in the march, a press conference in the office of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry one day earlier may have resulted in more media attention that Lorde’s speech. The conference was called as part of an agreement between march leaders, the Coalition of Black Gays, and the National Gay Task Force, following a late night telephone conference call.

Those attending the press conference were Coretta Scott King, who heads the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People; Judy Goldsmith, President of the National Organization of Women; the Rev. Cecil Williams, black civil rights activist and pastor of Glide Memorial Church of San Francisco; and Fauntroy.

Lowery, with 11 television news cameras whirring and reporters taking notes, said church leaders, as individuals, "unequivocably" endorsed the civil rights bill and pledged to work for its approval by Congress.

Mrs. King also pledged support for Gay rights legislation and noted that she and march leaders favor constitutional protections for "everyone." Mrs. King, who entered the press conference late,
drew applause from spectators in the room.

Several black Gay activists, such as Lawrence Washington and Phil Pannell, said they were concerned that Gerald and NGTF Executive Director Virginia Apuzzo did not consult enough other Gays before agreeing to the compromise with the march leaders that allowed Lorde to speak in the abbreviated "litany" section of the rally rather than allowing her to give a speck equal in length to other major speakers.

[caption beneath photograph] AUGUST 27: Walter Fauntroy’s alleged comparison of Gay rights to “penguin rights” was not forgotten.