THE BLOG

George Wallace, Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, and the LGBTQ Movement Beyond Marriage

02/24/2015 08:05 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

I can't stop thinking about two photos that I encountered recently. The first is the iconic one of Alabama's arch-segregationist governor, George Wallace, grandstanding at the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in 1963, taking his last stand against legal segregation in Alabama's schools as he declared that the state would not bend to federal intrusion. The image was resurrected this month because Alabama Chief Justice Roy S. Moore has once again made the state the center of the face-off between states' rights and civil rights. Moore defied a federal court mandate to begin recognizing same-sex marriages when he ordered Alabama's probate judges to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

As I began reading analyses of the Alabama marriage stand-off that reference Gov. Wallace and his famous defiance, I initially thought, optimistically: Ha, well, Wallace did not prevail! The feds came in, the news cameras moved on to something else, and desegregation triumphed at the end of the day, just as marriage equality will prevail here. No matter how long we have to play out the dynamics of the civil war, and no matter how much grandstanding by Wallace-like bigots we have to endure, equality wins in the end.

Then I quickly thought: But Ferguson. But Eric Garner. But the young Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. But ProPublica's recent study that revealed that young African-American men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police gunfire than white young men are. But the tragic murder of three young Muslim students in North Carolina earlier this month. But relentless school segregation, unequal access to health care, income inequality, achievement gaps, and seemingly no public will to change these enduring legacies and these new examples of white supremacy and privilege. But the fact that per-student public spending for schools is far outweighed by per-prisoner expenses in at least 40 states, and the fact that the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people of color in so many ways. But, but, but.... There are just too many racist micro- and macroaggressions to name.

And so I wondered, much more soberly: Did Wallace win? Do we have, as Wallace famously promised, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever"? We have legal racial desegregation -- of schools and all other areas of American institutional and public life -- but we do not, by any means, have equality. Legal equity is an absolute necessity, but it does not guarantee social, cultural, and economic justice.

With marriage, Alabama's grandstanders ultimately will lose. This George Wallace of our day will not prevail in the marriage stand-off. The state's judges already have been enjoined to marry same-sex couples. I believe, as well, that the Supreme Court soon will ensure that the remaining 13 states without marriage equality will have it. Then the LGBTQ civil rights movement in its various forms will move on to the many, many other legal hurdles that still must be cleared on the way to full legal equality for LGBTQ people. HRC recently published a report, "Beyond Marriage Equality: A Blueprint for Federal Non-Discrimination Protections," that calls for a broad federal nondiscrimination focus. And Peter Montgomery writes for the American Prospect's recent issue that the LGBTQ civil rights politics beyond marriage include both a conversation about the limits of a legal strategy and a focus on the miles we have to go on nondiscrimination laws in employment, services, and accommodations, and on the basic legal protections for transgender young people and adults, for LGBTQ people of color and immigrants, and for HIV-positive people.

These legal hurdles are massive. I do not know if and when they will be cleared. But even before they are, even before the George Wallaces have been removed from the schoolhouse doors of LGBTQ equality, we have important questions ahead of us for the future of the LGBTQ movement.

This brings me to the second photo that I can't get out of my mind. It is a 1983 photo that The New York Times ran on Feb. 6 of Stokely Carmichael laughing with Rosa Parks. The historian in me loves the image and my sense of surprise. I thought to myself: Huh? I never knew that these two icons met! I need to learn more about this! What did they talk about? What would they have said to each other in reflecting on their own historical importance and the significance and developments of the modern African-American liberation movement? The sociologist in me sees this amazing symbolic image: the icon of desegregation, the woman who started it all in Montgomery, Alabama, on a December day in 1955, when she took a stand on that bus. There she is, laughing with the man who popularized the phrase "Black Power" in 1966, the former student activist who was briefly connected to the Black Panther Party and who, in 1967, published a co-authored book, Black Power, that would set out an agenda for the next phase of the movement, once substantial legal gains had been made through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Parks and Carmichael, and the symbolism of their meeting, have a lot to teach us as we begin thinking beyond the marriage movement. Parks and Carmichael represent two parts of the struggles for racial justice of their time: legal equality and integration, on the one hand, and self-determination and a kind of liberationist politics that focused on community building, on the other. To be clear, these aspects of the movement were not always mutually exclusive or in opposition to each other, even though they often are represented that way. During the civil rights era, legal and social power were never very far apart in the minds of movement thinkers, leaders, and activists. Carmichael may have popularized and symbolized Black Power, but his ideas about separatism and its relationship to broad integration shifted over time and were complicated. In Black Power, Carmichael, with his co-author, political scientist Charles V. Hamilton, wrote:

The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. By this we mean that group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society.

And the Panthers, despite the popular image of gun-toting Black men in berets and sunglasses facing off against police, stood more for community strength and the creation and support of community-run services like schools. They also believed in the power of coalition building as they worked with other groups of color and white leftist groups. Activists like Carmichael, the Panthers, and others who identified with some strand of Black nationalism in the late 1960s turned their attention to building community-controlled institutions even when mainstream American institutions now had open doors, to using art and pop culture to build and maintain identity, to empowering young people to see themselves as beautiful and efficacious and strong and smart, and to assiduously holding government accountable for the protections promised under the Constitution. These activists knew that the loss of distinctive communities should not be the price to pay for full legal access and equality.

So as we begin to move beyond marriage politics to the fight for full LGBTQ equality, the image of Gov. Wallace is a good reminder that recognition of basic legal rights is an essential start but just a beginning and is insufficient on its own. The image of Parks and Carmichael -- this symbolic meeting of legal and community power -- is a reminder that the only way to forever remove George Wallace and his modern-day incarnates from our schoolhouse door -- for both racial justice and LGBTQ justice -- is to marry the fight for legal equality with a vigorous fight for community strength and vitality.