Bayard Rustin was one of the civil rights movement's most important tacticians from 1955 to 1968. He was the brains behind the 1963 March on Washington and one of Martin Luther King's most trusted advisers. He was also a gay man in a liberation movement that was as militantly homophobic as it was casually sexist.
Despite a track record as a "Race Man" and an organizer without peer, Rustin couldn't persuade the preachers that spearheaded the movement that he also had rights as a gay man that they were obliged to acknowledge and respect. All of his comrades considered his sexuality a poison pill that would doom civil rights to permanent marginality. They urged King to exile him to the back of the movement's proverbial bus.
To his credit, MLK refused to betray his friend, though he was conspicuously silent about the plight of gay Americans despite his friendship with the prominent black gay writer James Baldwin, who had no such compunctions. So, it can be credibly argued that at a crucial time in the history of civil rights in this country, the leaders of the movement failed to live up to the implication of their creed by embracing their gay and lesbian fellow travelers because of fear of how that alliance would look to a hostile, racist and homophobic society.
How different things might have turned out had Rustin prevailed and America had been forced to confront not only its oppressive racial history, but its fear of gays and lesbians. There is no evidence that had the movement been perspicacious enough to pursue a two-track battle against bigotry, it would have doomed the quest for racial equality. One form of bigotry is just as irrational at the other.
Eventually, the fight for gay rights emerged as a force in its own right during the Stonewall riots of 1969, the year after King's death. Much of the civil rights movement's establishment had beaten a hasty retreat into irrelevance by the time the police raid of a New York gay bar ignited a social revolution that never abated.
Though the gay rights movement has always looked to the civil rights movement as a tactical model worth emulating in limited circumstances, that respect was not reciprocated. Whenever gay folks pointed to the milestones of the civil rights movement as precedents in their own struggle, the parallels were often rejected and deeply resented by the old guard who never tired of proving that homophobia was as deeply entrenched in black life as in the rest of society.
Attitudes have turned around dramatically in the black community in recent years. President Obama's Damascus Road experience vis-a-vis gay marriage has precipitated much soul searching and a growing acceptance among blacks still struggling with the irony -- and morality -- of exchanging one form of discrimination for another.
Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam's decision to announce that he is gay before he's officially signed with an NFL team is being compared by some to Jackie Robinson's historic integration of Major League Baseball. It is a comparison that older civil rights stalwarts reject because it is too facile given that Robinson had to worry about being murdered every time he walked on the field.
Though Mr. Sam's insistence on being honest about who he is can only be described as brave, honestly, it isn't on the same order of magnitude as Robinson's defiance of full-throated American racism when he donned his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform on April 15, 1947. Mr. Sam doesn't have to sort through bags of hate mail. This is a good thing. More people accept him than not. He shouldn't have to suffer as much as Jackie Robinson.
Being called names on social media by cowards and dimwits is no big deal. Trolls are impotent in the face of the growing social acceptance of gay athletes. Mr. Sam's presence will generate massive good will -- and untold millions -- for the team smart enough to sign him. This is a far cry from what Robinson faced, but it isn't in a totally different universe. It is another link in a single chain of tolerance and justice -- not a different one.
In an era when MLK's sons are suing their sister for the right to sell their father's Nobel Peace prize to the highest bidder, Mr. Sam is closer to the spirit of what the civil rights movement once stood for than many of the old guard with their discredited attitudes. He's no Jackie Robinson, but who is? At least he's on the same team.
Tony Norman: email@example.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.