Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.
Sing My Song, the engaging new HBO documentary on Harry Belafonte and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, includes a clip of Julian Bond saying that when the singer began appearing on TV, calls would go out among friends announcing, “Colored on TV!”—it was such a rare occasion.
It reminded me of the rare occasions when an LGBT person or character appeared on television not long ago, how the word would go out so we could quickly tune in. And it prompts me to write about my gratitude for the Civil Rights Movement, having just visited the newly-dedicated Martin Luther King memorial on the mall in Washington, where I fought back tears. This movement shaped us and inspired us.
I was 12 years old when I witnessed the 1963 March on Washington on rows upon rows of television sets in the window of a store while my family was shopping at a newly-built mall in Southern California. Later, at our doctor’s office, I looked with wonder at the Life magazine photo coverage of the march. Among the celebrities I could identify in the pictures at the time were Charlton Heston (having seen him play Moses) and Harry Belafonte. The multitudes attending made me think this must be something important.
A tattered 1962 paperback edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird stands on my bookshelves, read after I saw the film released that same year. I read it a little at a time over the summer, savoring my imaginary friendship with Jem and Scout and Dill and sharing their discovery of injustice, while identifying more with the closeted Boo Radley than the falsely accused Tom Robinson.
My high school principal was the one who made me want to speak and write as eloquently as he: James B. Taylor, who had served as boys’ vice principal was championed as principal by parents, yet, as an African-American, real estate practices prevented his family’s purchase of a home in the neighborhood! Through another teacher I learned he was married to a niece of U.N. shaper and Nobel Peace prize recipient Ralph Bunche. A tenor in the school choir, we loved singing Principal Taylor’s favorite song, “When You Walk through a Storm” from Carousel. He was beloved by all, and knowing he was religious, one class gift to him was a large family Bible. In 1996, I would dedicate to him a Presbyterian curriculum I wrote for older youth entitled Unlearning Racism.
I left my Baptist church in the L.A. suburbs toward the end of high school partly because of something I overheard during coffee hour. Two black ladies had visited our all white worship, and one of our members said snidely to a friend, “I bet they came to try this integratin’ stuff! But we showed ’em they were welcome even if they are Negroes.”
When I was 17, my mom and I were standing in our kitchen when my brother came in to tell us that the radio had just announced that Dr. King had been shot. That Sunday, at the Free Evangelical Church I was now attending, the youth pastor read as the evening sermon King’s profound “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” available in his book, Strength to Love.
The Civil Rights Movement helped bring me into the Presbyterian Church. Now in college, the first Sunday of 1970 I attended the First Presbyterian Church of Van Nuys and was surprised that the seminary intern, Jim Nicholie, preached on the previous ten years of the movement. He was part of Project Understanding, a local program in churches intended to overcome racism. I would later learn that a church elder once circulated a petition trying to oust the senior pastor, Dr. James King Morse, calling him a Communist partly because he had preached on the “Christian” way to vote on Proposition 14 (no!) that would have nullified California’s Rumford Fair Housing Act that eliminated the racial barriers Principal Taylor had faced. The then recently approved Confession of 1967, which spoke of reconciliation among races and nations, clinched the deal for me and I became a member within three months.
In my own search of self as a gay Christian, it was visiting MCC Los Angeles in 1972 that for the first time, I witnessed a racially integrated congregation. And if it weren't for the strong support of a black pastor named Robert Jones, an instructor in field work, I would never have been able to do my first ministry within the LGBT community while attending Yale Divinity School.
My first visit to the Washington mall came on my way to seminary in August, 1973, and I was very aware that it was the tenth anniversary of the 1963 march. By myself, as I ascended a rise near the Washington monument, I caught a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial in the distance as the sun was setting, and I could hear King’s words resound through time, “I have a dream…” During the 1983 commemorative march I snapped a photo of a little black girl carrying a picket sign as large as she was that read, “The Dream lives on!”
Now in Atlanta, as often as twice a week, running errands, I pass by where Martin and Coretta are buried, near his birth home and next to Ebenezer Church. And somewhere in a storage facility in California, I still have my sister’s 45 of Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song,” listening to which was probably my first multicultural experience.
On the day that Chris visited the King memorial, Pittsburgh Presbytery voted to disinvite him! He had been asked to speak about reconciliation, not ordination. Read the story…
Join Chris, Robert V. Taylor, and Joseph Palacios discussing Three Movements of Gratitude, a retreat for gay and bisexual Christian men at Kirkridge, Nov. 10-13.