[On January 9th, 1978 Harvey Milk was inaugurated to a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, making him one of America’s first openly gay elected officials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Milk and other historical moments and events in the early history of the Gay Rights Movement, leading up to a weekend post on an impressive visual exhibit on the movement at Fitchburg State University.]
On the significance of violence for civil rights movements, and also of remembering beyond it.
I don’t want to oversimplify the many layers and threads to Ava DuVernay’s wonderful and important historical drama Selma (2014), but if I had to identify one turning point scene in the film, it would be the stunning and painful sequence when a young John Lewis and his fellow Civil Rights marchers are brutally attacked and beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As the film presents this moment, it was the violence directed against the nonviolent marchers—and more exactly the national awareness of that violence, as it was covered extensively on television news as well as in many other media venues—that led to significant shifts in both public consciousness and President Lyndon Johnson’s own policies, among other effects. And moreover, the film presents those effects are entirely purposeful and intended, as illustrated by an earlier scene when Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow Civil Rights leaders argue that such violent responses to nonviolent resistance are precisely what they’re hoping to draw out of Selma’s Sheriff Jim Clark and his racist ilk. The violence, David Oyelowo’s King argues, is a painful but necessary and crucial step toward achieving the movement’s goals.
I don’t think there’s any way to argue that either the June 28, 1969 violent police raids on New York City’s Stonewall Inn or the subsequent nights of riots in protest of those raids were purposeful or intended by the gay rights movement or their allies. Although the LGBTQ community in New York had faced overt and official discrimination for years, and although there had been a similar police raid and riot at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria a few years earlier (in August 1966), the violent police crackdown on the Greenwich Village establishment Stonewall—the city’s most prominent gay bar and night club at the time—was nonetheless as unexpected as it was brutal. But from what I can tell, the raid and riots—both the night of the raid and for a new nights after, LGBTQ New Yorkers and their allies gathered at the scene to angrily protest the police brutality—achieved similar effects to the events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge: garnering significant national attention and sympathy for the gays right movement and its causes and goals, and in the process fundamentally shifting the conversations over this American civil rights issue and movement. In their different yet parallel ways, then, both Selma and Stonewall illustrate the tragic but important role that violence can play in helping civil rights movement advance their causes.
Yet as much of my writing in this space (and in my online spaces overall) argues, collective memories are always about emphasis, about what we particularly focus on and make central to our shared narratives and conversations. And so we can recognize and engage with the role of violence in a history like that of the Stonewall Uprising, but still focus our collective memories on different, under-remembered, and to my mind even more influential elements of that history. For example, the six months after Stonewall saw the founding of a number of new and significant gay rights organizations and initiatives in New York: the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), founded just days after Stonewall and the first civil rights organization to use “gay” in its name; three newspapers, Gay, Come Out!, and Gay Power; and the Gay Activists Alliance, which complemented but also diverged from the GLF and made clear that the gay rights movement in the city (and beyond) had multiple voices and communities. For another example, on the one-year anniversary of the raid, June 28, 1970, Gay Pride marches were held in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; these are considered the first such marches in America, and would become one of Stonewall’s most prominent and enduring legacies. The more we can remember and emphasize these effects to Stonewall, the more we can focus on how the gay rights movement truly advanced its causes and perspectives, in response to but also far beyond the oppressive violence of the raid.
Last history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?
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