Call it coincidence, but my bedside reading for the past couple of weeks has been the new two-volume boxed set of the Library of America’s Reporting Civil Rights. Awe-inducing and frequently thrilling, this monumental anthology of on-the-scene coverage of the fight for black equality features contributions by scores of writers, some rightly renowned—James Baldwin, Garry Wills, et. al.—and some unjustly obscure. Part One deals with the years 1941-1963; Part Two tackles the pressure-cooker decade that followed King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Each volume also includes a sheaf of photographs, primarily of the writers themselves at the time. They’re often evocative ones, even if the era’s great photojournalism—no less worthy of commemoration—gets short shrift as a result.
Anyway, I won’t pretend I’ve made much more than a dent in the set’s almost 2,000 pages. But that’s not the point, since Reporting Civil Rights could easily keep my idle hours occupied until Christmas. (Not only was I kidding myself that I could somehow plow through it in time to write a full-fledged review this month, but yes, Monsieur Proust, you’ve lost out—again.) The point is that the Supreme Court sure does know how to cure me of any illusions that I’m reading about settled history.
Taken together, last week’s two big SCOTUS decisions—the effective gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) on Tuesday, followed by DOMA’s repeal 24 hours later—add up to an awfully ambiguous Fourth of July gift sampler. No doubt, it would be excessive to compare the Roberts Court’s m.o. to handing out free balloons from the back of a hearse. But in left-wing circles, celebrating DOMA’s demise quickly overwhelmed anger at the Supremes’ sabotage of the cornerstone legislation of the civil-rights era, reminding us that—whatever else he is—Roberts is a top-notch tactician. You had to feel for Representative John Lewis—one of the relatively few 1960s civil-rights veterans who’s still active and prominent—as his lament for the VRA was all but drowned out by jubilation.
Not that the big step forward was anything other than a milestone for the ages. I’d have spent Wednesday night ululating in solidarity if I hadn’t had to put on my movie-reviewer hat and trundle off to a preview screening of The Lone Ranger. (This week, it’s all about minorities.) Instead, I had to content myself as I drove with fond thoughts of my pal Jim Fouratt—onetime Yippie so fearless he unnerved Abbie Hoffman, literal poster boy for Gay Lib (as it was then known) back in the early 1970s, and the man who first taught me that gay rights are human rights when I met him as a benighted 23-year-old. Today, he's an unreconstructed old cuss, frequently at odds with New York's LGBT leading lights. But I felt indignant anyway when Jim reported that he’d been prevented from speaking at the Christopher Street celebration of DOMA’s repeal. While some people dispute his claim that he was at Stonewall from start to finish in 1969—and my old friend, lord knows, has never been accused of hiding his light under a bushel—Fouratt was indisputably present at the movement’s creation.
The creation as it’s been handed down to us, at least. But that omits a lot of prehistory, as I kept being reminded in another context when I reopened the first volume of Reporting Civil Rights right after sitting through Johnny Depp’s stinko movie. Like a lot of white Americans my age, I’ve always felt reasonably up to speed on the integration saga from Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, and MLK’s emergence onward: maybe not the play-by-play, but the highlights reel. Yet if Part Two of the LoA anthology compellingly immerses us in the 1963-1973 play-by-play, Part One is most valuable for undermining any misapprehension that black America didn’t get up to much during the 70-odd years between Jim Crow’s post-Reconstruction emergence and Earl Warren’s swearing-in as Chief Justice.
Since the NAACP (founded 1909) and the African American press scored their first real victory by raising public awareness of the vicious racism of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation in 1915—not enough to stop the movie from becoming a recruiting tool for the renascent Ku Klux Klan, but enough to induce Griffith himself to try making amends with Intolerance—choosing 1941 as post time for Reporting Civil Rights is debatable. But as with so many sociological transformations in 20th-century America, World War Two was the hinge for much. The African Americans who migrated from the South during the Depression and/or ended up in Uncle Sam’s segregated army after Pearl Harbor created new aspirations and frustrations alike. And because black America had its own well-established intellectual institutions by then, from newspapers to colleges, oodles of brainy African Americans had the chops—and even, in a reluctant white America’s eyes, the standing, at least in a few cases—to analyze and lobby for their grievances with extraordinary force.
Decades later, we can sense these anthologized writers’ superbly controlled rage. What’s remote from us—yet no less impressive—is the arsenal of now archaic skills they had to deploy to make a persuasive case back when this country didn’t even pay lip service to racial equality. In the Library of America anthology, here’s Langston Hughes, dryly reporting how he outwitted Jim Crow on a 1945 train trip before urging the Chicago Defender’s readers to do likewise. And here’s Bayard Rustin, recounting a 1942 beating by Dixie’s finest with such erudite polish that he’s virtually daring white readers of that era to think he’s any less of a man than Oscar Wilde.
African Americans who reject comparing the civil-rights struggle with today’s campaigns for gay equality, run into trouble with Rustin, who went on to co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Both black and gay, he ended up paying a bigger price for the latter than the former. Instead of being “controversial,” though, he’s often simply left out of the story, at least the one most tourists encounter on the Mall and elsewhere. Even Thurgood Marshall is remembered almost exclusively for his own tenure on the Supreme Court—and, in my case, for immortally saying “I expect to die at age 110, shot by a jealous husband”—not the years he spent patiently laying traps for bear as the NAACP’s chief counsel before Brown kicked down the door.
Similarly, not one in 10,000 Americans, gay or straight, has probably heard of Frank Kameny, co-founder in 1950 of the Washington, D.C., chapter of America’s first-ever gay-rights group—the Mattachine Society—in the teeth of midcentury oppression and revulsion. To his credit, Andrew Sullivan often tries to remind his readers of gay liberation’s pre-Stonewall pioneers. But he’s had about as much luck as old-school suffragist fans enthralled by Alice Paul—in her way, as great a general as Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse—who fought Woodrow Wilson’s White House tooth and nail in 1917-1918 and won. As admirable and consequential as Betty Friedan was, she never had to survive a hunger strike.
And yep, right you are: I’m more besotted by history than may be good for me, especially since I’m just a movie reviewer by trade. But in a week marked by a huge victory for gay equality and a horrible setback for African American voting rights—not to mention a real kidney punch to America’s long-suffering indigenes, in the form of The Lone Ranger—there’s sustenance to be found in a rekindled awareness that all these struggles are one and the same and their past and future outspan any one person’s lifetime. Naturally, that doesn’t stop me from hoping I’ll be around to read the Library of America’s Reporting Gay Liberation one day, no doubt after the women’s turn—and Jim Fouratt had better show up in the index too, at least if the LoA knows what’s good for them. But if I’m not, so what? Happy Independence Day, everyone.