Healy, Patrick - Queer Foundation

How did the events of the African American Civil Rights
Movement in Alabama from 1950-1969 compare to the
events of the Gay Rights Movement in California from 19601979?
Patrick Healy
Southeast High School
Bradenton, FL
African Americans and Homosexuals have historically been discriminated against in the
United States. Both social groups have been victims of job persecution, police violence, and theft
of human rights by legislature. Today, however, this prejudice is far less than it was in the 20th
century.1 The shift in societal and legal attitudes towards African Americans and Homosexuals is
attributed to the events of the African American Civil Rights Movement and the events of the
Gay Rights Movement. In reference to the African American Civil Rights Movement, this
investigation will focus on events occurring in Alabama between 1950 and 1969 that resulted in
abolishment of segregation, advancement of African American voting rights, and creation of
equality between African Americans and Whites. In reference to the Gay Rights Movement, this
investigation will focus on events occurring between 1960 and 1979 that resulted in the
abolishment of sodomy laws, creation of gay rights ordinances, and made it safe and comfortable
for homosexuals to be open about their sexual orientation. The research question to be addressed
is: How did the events of the African American Civil Rights Movement in Alabama compare to
the events of the Gay Rights Movement in California? This topic is worthy of study because
bigotry and the need for social change is an ever present issue in society. By comparing these
two movements in relation to each other, their similarities and differences will make it apparent
as to how prejudice is eradicated and that injustice is and has been present in many settings.
Evidence for this argument will be derived from scholarly books, newspaper articles,
documentaries, internet resources, interviews, and newscasts. It is evident that these social
movements compare by the actions of the organizations supervising the movements, the types of
protests used, the manner in which issues were dramatized, and the activities of leaders in the
Pamela, 2014
Organizations and the Conditions of their Followers
Despite the differences in the types of injustice experienced by African Americans and
Homosexuals, both social groups dealt with extreme animosity from police forces. Police in
Alabama often mistreated African Americans in multiple ways. Police would push African
Americans on streets, call them racial slurs such as “nigger”, and enforce the laws of Jim Crowe
with brute force. It was not uncommon for an African American to be beaten by Police if they
came slightly too close to a facility designated Whites only or attempted to eat at an all-White
dining location.2
In the early 1960’s police animosity towards homosexuals in California greatly
increased.3 If two homosexuals were seen in public, police would commonly break them apart
and possibly arrest them for public indecency.4 Essentially, any public display of homosexuality
was met with violence as well as slurs such as “faggot” or “queer”. Known meeting places for
homosexuals, such as parks, were also patrolled by Police, resulting in many arrests. 5 Police
animosity towards homosexuals however was most commonly seen in bars catering to the
homosexual community, known as gay bars. Police invaded gay bars and extorted customers by
beating them with night sticks.6 In fact, this practice was so common that the heterosexual
population of California expected it to occur.7 Both African Americans and Homosexuals
experienced prejudice and police brutality, thus making a need for social reformation.
In both social movements, overarching organizations were founded to mediate the events
of the movements. Founded in Montgomery, AL in August 1957, the Southern Christian
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Leadership Conference (SCLC) played a large role in organizing protests and demonstrations for
the African American Civil Rights Movement. The SCLC was created from the Montgomery
Bus Boycott and elected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as its first president.8 The SCLC worked
throughout the Southern United States but its influence was present most in Alabama.9
The Gay Rights movement counterparts to the SCLC are the Mattachine Society and
Taverns Guild. The Mattachine Society is considered the earliest gay rights organization.10
Founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and several other homosexuals in Los Angeles, CA, the
Mattachine Society focused primarily on self-discovery for homosexuals as well as improvement
and protection of their rights.11 By 1953 the Mattachine Society had over 100 chapters in
Southern California. The Taverns Guild was a union among gay bars to protect each other,
prevent police raids, and advance homosexual rights.12 The Taverns Guild was first established
among bars in San Francisco in the mid 1950’s but soon extended to Los Angeles.13 The SCLC,
Mattachine Society, and Taverns Guild played similar roles in their respective social movements
because of their overarching nature. Action was organized throughout Alabama and California
by these organizations. In addition, all 3 of these organizations also held voting registration
drives.14 15 This voter registration allowed African Americans and Homosexuals to be involved
in elections, thus providing the influence to pass or eradicate legislation and representatives to
promote their rights.
More specifically, both movements also had smaller organizations which worked at a
local level. For example, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was the group
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Carrier, 2004
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responsible for organizing and controlling the Montgomery Bus Boycott.16 The San Franciscan
Society of Individual Rights (SIR) was also an organization in the Gay Rights Movement which
focused on San Francisco.17 All of these organizations, both overarching and local, had to
fundraise. The SCLC thrived on donations by benefactors. Martin Luther King acquired
donations for the SCLC from lawyers of the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP), an organization that worked throughout the United States for African
American rights.18 SIR held events to raise money for the cause. One specific instance of this
was a New Year’s Eve Ball held at the Glide Memorial Baptist Church.19 It was one of the
largest events held to promote homosexual rights, therefore it was a target for police to intervene.
During the festivities, police invaded the ball claiming a safety inspection, thus causing
commotion resulting in multiple arrests and some violence.20 The event was monitored by the
media which made it a prime public example of police animosity towards homosexuals.21 The
conditions before the African American Civil Rights Movement and Gay Rights Movement both
contain injustice and police brutality. Proprieting these movements took the efforts of both
national and local organizations having protests and voter registration drives.
The Montgomery Bus and Coors Beer Boycotts
Boycotts are a form of economic protest in which a group of people refuse to use a
service or business in revolt against some issue. In the African American Civil Rights
Movement, no boycott is as infamous as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In Montgomery, AL
African Americans were required to sit in the back of public buses, and, if more White
Winters, 2000
Alensas, 2008
Carrier, 2004
“Cops invade homosexual,” 1965
Alensas, 2008
“Cops invade homosexual,” 1965
passengers got on, give up their seats.22 This was the common practice until the evening of
December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks, an African American seamstress, refused to give up her seat
to a White man.23 Despite being ordered by the bus driver to move, Parks held her ground. She
was promptly arrested and found guilty of violating segregation laws.24 This arrest caught the
attention of the NAACP which decided to use Parks’ arrest as the platform to begin a boycott of
the buses in Montgomery.25 Flyers were printed and distributed announcing a boycott of the
buses to begin on December 5th, the following Monday. At a meeting of African American
leaders in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. was elected to lead the boycott, and the MIA was
founded to help run the mass protest.26 African Americans were to boycott the bus system until
the following demands were met: No more segregation on the buses, and the hiring of African
American bus drivers on primarily African American routes.27 African Americans were common
patrons of the public bus system, thus their absence created economic distress for the city of
Montgomery. In order to sustain the boycott, an intense network of carpooling was formed and
many people walked.28 During the time of this boycott, animosity of Montgomery police towards
African Americans was increased. The animosity was so intense that Montgomery even adopted
a “get tough” policy in which police tried to force African Americans on the buses using force
and intimidation.29 In addition, the homes of both Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon were
bombed by White supremacists;30 tension in Montgomery was high. Despite the violence and
hardship, on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on
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Barron, 2013
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public buses was unconstitutional and on December 20, 1956 the demands of the MIA were met
and the boycott ended.31 The African Americans rode again, but unsegregated. The Montgomery
Bus Boycott was one of the first major victories of the African American Civil Rights
movements. It demonstrated the influence of African Americans when they stood together and
established boycotts as a useful means of protest.
In the Gay Rights Movement, there is also a significant boycott, the Coors Beer Boycott
of San Francisco, CA. However, the Coors Boycott held significance in a different way than the
Montgomery Bus Boycott. The brainchild behind this boycott was Harvey Milk. Milk was a
resident of San Francisco, CA, living in a neighborhood called The Castro, a predominantly
homosexual neighborhood. Before Milk arrived, the straight-owned businesses of the Castro
discriminated against homosexuals and treated them unjustly. Milk changed this by making lists
of those businesses which were gay-friendly and those which were not. The homosexuals of The
Castro then did not shop at the non-gay-friendly stores, and they went out of business.32
However, this small boycott was the predecessor of the Coors Beer Boycott. Coors Beer at this
time had a well-known history of being conservative and anti-labor union. Many cities around
the country were attempting to boycott Coors Beer, but unsuccessfully.33 The homosexual
population’s influence in eradicating homophobic businesses caught to the attention of Alan
Behr, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the Teamsters Union.34 Behr met with Harvey
Milk and asked him to help them with the Coors Beer Boycott. Within a month, Milk and the
homosexual population of San Francisco got Coors Beer out of every gay bar in the city. The
momentum only progressed from there, eventually all bars got rid of the beer, and San Francisco
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was successfully boycotting Coors.35 The Coors Beer Boycott did not directly advance Gay
Rights. However, its success with the help of homosexuals established the homosexual
population as influential. Also, Harvey Milk gained strong allies with the Teamsters and other
labor unions. Harvey Milk was later elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and
became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States.36 Milk’s allies
gained in the Coors Beer Boycott contributed significantly to this success. The Montgomery Bus
Boycott and Coors Beer Boycott are both significant economic protests in their respective social
movements. They were both great victories and established African Americans and Homosexuals
as influential social groups, providing momentum for their movements.
Dramatization of Issues
Social movements are made up not only of protests, but also demonstrations. A
demonstration in a social movement is an activity performed by the members of the movement
that may seem unrelated to the issue but nevertheless dramatizes the issues and creates change.
In the African American Civil Rights Movement some of the most powerful demonstrations are
the marches of African Americans and their supporters from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL in
protest of ludicrous voting laws in Selma. In order to create change, the legislature must be voted
on, and the African Americans needed to vote to create this change. However, in Selma, there
existed ridiculous voting laws that prevented African Americans from being able to register to
vote. One of these was the Grandfather Clause in which a person could not register if their
grandfather was a slave; this eliminated most of the African American population. Another such
practice was an impossible literacy test which the African Americans could not pass, and thus
Epstein, 1984
Russell, 1995
could not register to vote.37 In response to this injustice, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) and SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to take place on
March 7, 1965. 600 people began at the Brown Chapel in Selma and marched toward
Montgomery.38 As the marchers made their way out of Selma they encountered a hoard of AL
state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The troopers ordered the demonstrators to turn back
but they continued on. The troopers then retaliated on the marchers by beating them with clubs
and releasing tear gas. The marchers dispersed and these acts of violence gave March 7, 1965 the
name “Bloody Sunday”. On March 9, 1965, another march was held but instead of crossing the
Edmund Pettus Bridge and risk more violence, the marchers knelt in prayer and then turned
around, giving this day the name, “Turnaround Tuesday”.39 President Lyndon B. Johnson took
notice of these demonstrations and on March 17, 1965 he declared that all restrictions to voting
that inhibited African Americans would be struck down. On March 21, 1965, a 3rd march was
held which successfully made it to Montgomery.40 The intense crowds and actions of people in
these demonstrations dramatized the issue of voting rights, which led to change in legislature.
Homosexuals in California held a comparable demonstration in San Francisco on June
25, 1978 known as the Gay Freedom Day Parade. At the time of this parade, the Gay Rights
Movement was very active in San Francisco due to the election of Harvey Milk. The most
prominent issue at the moment was Proposition 6. Proposition 6 was a controversial legislature
introduced by California senator John Briggs which would eliminate all homosexuals from
teaching positions in public schools.41 The parade dramatized the issue of this Proposition by
demonstrating large support of the homosexual community, and that this Proposition was
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unjustly. The parade, composed floats and thousands of marchers, began in The Castro and
continued down Market Street where it ended at the San Francisco Civic Center, one block from
San Francisco City Hall.42 At the conclusion of the parade, Harvey Milk gave a monumental
speech in which he called upon the federal government, President Jimmy Carter, and the people
of California to not support Proposition 6.43 Milk also called upon homosexuals to come out of
the closet as to eliminate stereotypes and prejudice towards them. This demonstration had great
influence. On the day of the parade, John Briggs agreed to have a public debate with Harvey
Milk about the Proposition.44 This debate occurred on September 6, 1978, and it exposed flawed
logic in the proposition.45 Also, later that year, Jimmy Carter openly opposed Proposition 6 in a
public appearance.46 The effects and dramatizations of the 1978 Gay Freedom Parade were very
significant and contributed to the voting down of Proposition 647.
Another way in which issues were dramatized in the African American Civil Rights
movement was the mass arrest of children at Birmingham, AL, protests. Birmingham was
Alabama’s largest city, thus it was a target for the SCLC to end segregation. Organized by a
Birmingham Minister named Fred Shuttlesworth and the SCLC, the first protests occurred on
April 3, 1963.48 The protests utilized in Birmingham were primarily marches. Many people
gathered at various churches in Birmingham and marched to Birmingham City Hall. The goal of
these marches was to get as many people arrested as possible, thus bringing national attention to
the issues of segregation in Birmingham. Under the lash of Birmingham Public Safety
Commissioner Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, this would not be a problem. Connor was
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“Harvey milk meets, 1978
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notorious for brutal arrests. However, it was hard to get many people to participate in these
protests because most adults in Birmingham could not afford the financial toll of being
arrested.49 This issue was solved by the SCLC by allowing children to participate in the marches.
There were thousands of children willing to participate and the arresting of minors would draw
enormous public attention. On May 2, 1963, hundreds of children marched in Birmingham.50
Connor ordered the mass arrests of the children; so many were taken into custody that when the
police ran out of paddy wagons, school buses were used to haul them to jail. On May 3, 1963,
hundreds more children marched in Birmingham, but instead of arresting them, Connor had them
attacked with fire houses and attack dogs because all the jails were full.51 This animosity and
violence drew enormous media attention and let the entire world know about the injustice in
Birmingham. President John F. Kennedy even remarked at a press conference that he felt for the
victims in Birmingham.52 By the end of the Birmingham protests, segregation was eradicated,
and the arrest of children played a significant role in this victory.
Using arrests to dramatize issues was also used in the Gay Rights Movement to repeal
California Sodomy Laws. Repealing of sodomy laws was the primary task of activist Troy Perry.
Perry was the founder and president of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).53 The MCC
was a powerful Christian church that served the homosexual community with a message that
their lifestyle was not a crime against God. By 1970 the MCC had thousands of members and
chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, and Honolulu.54 In partnership
with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Perry organized a demonstration in which lawyers of the
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GLF performed a citizen’s arrest on 3 couples for admitting to having anal sex in May 1974.55
The couples were a lesbian, heterosexual, and gay couple which included Troy Perry. The
couples were taken to the Los Angeles district attorney who declared that the government had no
right to intervene in the private lives of consenting adults.56 He thus avoided prosecuting the
powerful Troy Perry which would have been a major media blunder. This declaration started the
momentum for the California Sodomy Laws to be repealed in 1975.57 In both cases of the
African American Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement, arrests were used to
dramatize issues and bring media attention, which successfully brought social change.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk
An essential aspect of any movement is the work of its leaders. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. is practically the face of the African American Civil Rights Movement. He was the leader of
the Montgomery Bus Boycott, president of the SCLC and a speaker at the African American
March on Washington.58 There are many characteristics of King’s leadership but one of the most
significant is his opposition to violence. A powerful example of this occurred during the
Montgomery Bus Boycott. On January 30, 1956, while King was conducting a meeting at
Abernathy’s Church, his home was bombed. It is believed to have been retaliation by the Ku
Klux Klan, a white supremacy terrorist group. The night of the bombing, a crowd of people
gathered outside King’s home wielding weapons and preparing for a riot, but in response, King
talked down the crowd by telling them violence was not the way to respond.59 This is but one
example in which King prevented violence and maintained peace.
Harvey Milk played an extremely similar role in calming the homosexuals of San
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Francisco. On June 7, 1977 a vote was held in Miami-Dade County, FL to repeal the county’s
Gay Rights Ordinance which protected homosexuals from persecution.60 The action to put this
issue on the ballot was largely perpetrated by Anita Bryant, a Florida Orange Juice spokesperson who became a public figure against Gay Rights.61 To the homosexuals of the nation,
especially those in San Francisco, this was a major attack. The ordinance was successfully
repealed which caused the homosexuals of The Castro to flood into the streets.62 As the crowd
grew larger and more aggressive it was apparent that a riot was to ensue. In order to prevent this
violence, Milk received police permission to march the crowd to San Francisco City Hall. Milk
told the crowd that instead of releasing their anger with a riot they should march the streets. By
marching the crowd, instead of letting their aggression spill out in The Castro, Milk avoided
senseless violence which could have set back the Gay Rights Movement. Both King and Milk
used their persuasion skills to prevent violence, strategies extremely essential to their respective
Tragically, King and Milk were both assassinated. Ironically, the deaths of these peaceful
leaders both led to extreme riots. At the time of his death, King was in Memphis, TN helping to
protest for the rights of sanitation workers. On the evening of April 4, 1968 King was leaving the
Lorraine Motel to have dinner with a Memphis minister when he was shot in the head on the
balcony.63 King was shot by James Earl Ray, an escape convict from the Missouri State
Penitentiary.64 King was rushed to the hospital but proclaimed dead that night. By the end of the
following day, riots had begun in major U.S. cities such as Chicago, IL, Newark, NJ, Los
Adam, 1995
Hirshman, 2012
Van Sant, 2008
US National Archives, 1979
US National Archives, 1979
Angeles, CA and Birmingham, AL.65 The riots did not last for longer than 2 days at most but
they still demonstrated public outcry for the death of King.
Harvey Milk was killed by fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White along with Mayor
George Moscone on November 27, 1978 at San Francisco City Hall.66 Dan White had recently
resigned from his position but wanted his job back.67 However, he was not going to be reinstated
which led to his killing of Moscone and Milk. It was Moscone’s responsibility to reappoint
someone else to the Board of Supervisors and White had been a political enemy to Milk.
Following the assassination a candlelight march was held in San Francisco, riots did not ensue
until 5 months later when White was only convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to
7 years in prison.68 White’s lawyers claimed that White’s diet of junk food led to his insanity,
and he was thus not responsible for the murders; this would later be called be “Twinkie”
Defense.69 Public anger for the meager sentence culminated in the White Night Riots which led
to destruction in much of the downtown San Francisco area, especially around city hall. These
riots were the largest in the Gay Rights Movement. Despite the peaceful leadership of King and
Milk, both of their assassinations led to riots and mass destruction.
The African American Civil Rights Movement and Gay Rights Movement may be
different but the events and outcomes compare in multiple ways. There were multiple
supervising organizations for the movements which focused on national and local levels. Some
overarching organizations were the SCLC, Taverns Guild, and Mattachine Society, all of which
held voting registration drives. Some focused on local levels were the MIA and SIR. In both
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Epstein, 1984
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Van Sant, 2008
movements, boycotts were used to establish their groups as influential and create change. The
Montgomery Bus Boycott was a large victory for African Americans and ended public bus
segregation. The Coors Beer Boycott demonstrated the influence of the homosexual population
in San Francisco and gave them allies with labor unions. Dramatization of issues and goals were
also prevalent. The Selma to Montgomery marches and Gay Freedom Day parade were
demonstrations of support for African American Civil Rights and Gay Rights which caught
attention of the government. Arrests were used in Birmingham, AL when children were arrested
for marching and in Los Angeles, CA when 3 couples were arrested for having anal sex. These
mass arrests both led to social change in which Birmingham segregation ended and California
repealed its Sodomy Laws. Finally, the actions of movements’ leaders Martin Luther King Jr.
and Harvey Milk compare in that they both prevented violence by talking down aggressive
crowds and that their followers responded with riots to their assassinations. This comparison of
events in the African American Civil Rights Movement demonstrates that ending prejudice is
most effective in this specific way, and that bigotry exists in all places, and in all forms. In this
example more than ever it is apparent that history does repeat itself.
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