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Coming Out in Black History Month

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It's Black History Month, when we usually commemorate pioneers of the past who fought for equality. But this year some new history was made by African-American college football star Michael Sam, who came out as gay a couple of months ahead of the NFL draft.

Sam will no doubt be remembered as a groundbreaker, but he couldn't have done it without groundbreakers before him -- like Coretta Scott King. Best-known for civil rights marches in the '60s alongside her husband, most don't realize she was an early advocate for gay rights as well.

King even took on a group of more than two dozen black pastors who rallied against gay marriage at a church in Atlanta, attempting to distance the civil rights struggle from the gay rights movement. At a time when President George W. Bush was backing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions, the pastors backed him by signing a declaration outlining their beliefs that marriage should remain a union between a man and a woman.

Coretta Scott King's words at a gay right's rally:

I wanted to join you today to affirm my wholehearted support for freedom from discrimination for lesbian and gay people. It is vitally important for African Americans, lesbians and gay people, the women's rights movement, to work together in multicultural coalitions. We share a critical interest in the election of candidates who will support and protect human rights. We share a concern about candidates who hope to win votes by bashing gay and lesbian people and pandering to the irrational fears and ignorance of the constituents. I want to assure you that I will continue to support you in your efforts to rid our country, and the nation, of all forms of bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia. So we can create a society where all people can live together with respect, tolerance and a new spirit of hope and opportunity. With this commitment, together, We Shall Overcome.

With the backlash against lesbians and gays, those words are as meaningful today as when they were spoken in Atlanta in 1996. Activists like King, and those followed her, collectively gave Sam the courage to come out, even though NFL executives and coaches say it could doom his chances for a career in the sport. Whether that happens or not, Michael Sam has already made his mark -- on Black history, civil rights history and gay rights history. His act, like King's words, will echo a lot longer than cheers in a football stadium.

Listen to the two-minute radio commentary, including Coretta Scott King's speech here.

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