I was interested to read the obituary in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times marking the life of Dorothy Height, the black civil rights leader who died on Tuesday at age 98. Years ago, I saw her speak at one of the colleges here in Claremont, and I recall having only a vague sense that she was very important. (She did look very important, or at least grand, wearing a large, Sunday-best hat.)
Indeed, as was pointed out in the obituary, Ms. Height - she never married - was "overlooked" and "overshadowed" despite being considered to be the "Godmother of Civil Rights." Because of her gender, she was the seventh of a cadre of black civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph and Whitney Young, often referred to as the Group of Six.
Two incidents described in the obituary really caught my attention. In one incident, a police officer threatened her life when she defied his order to wait for a train in the "colored waiting room" rather than board with her white colleagues. "Don’t you go straight on that train or I’ll blow your brains out," the officer growled. Later, Roy Wilkins, one of the leaders of the NAACP, told her the she would have been dead if she was a man.
Perhaps being a woman was an advantage in this incident, but, in the other incident that stood out for me, it was a real disadvantage. In organizing the historic March on Washington, Bayard Rustin insisted that no woman should speak, arguing that women were part of all the groups represented. Ms. Height commented, "Mr. Rustin’s stance showed us that men honestly didn’t see their position as patriarchal or patronizing. They were happy to include in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household!"
No doubt Ms. Height was thinking what I’m thinking: Bayard Rustin, of all people.
It is said that hate stems from ignorance, along with fear. I’d like to think that these two incidents show that hate and ignorance don’t always go together, that ignorance doesn’t always lead to hate.
Bayard Rustin was gay, and, because of this, he too was marginalized in the black civil rights movement. He knew what it was like to be even more of an outsider; indeed, he was once arrested for homosexual behavior. I’d like to think that, unlike the police officer at the train station, Mr. Rustin, who was also a Quaker, was simply being ignorant and not hateful when he denied Ms. Height and other women the opposite to speak at the Washington, D.C rally. (Mahalia Jackson did get to sing the national anthem.) Ms. Height, who did most of her work with the National Council of Negro Women, implied the in saying that "men honestly didn’t see" what they were doing.
I’d also like to think that this is what is happening with same-sex marriage bans - that they will be rejected as more people know gay people. In California, Proposition 8 passed by less of a margin than the earlier Proposition 22, and it is thought that it can be overturned by voters in a few years. This seems to be in contrast to the hateful, apartheid-like bill approved by the Arizona legislature targeting illegal immigrants, even as more and more people accept their existence and agree they should be dealt with fairly.