Skip to main content

March on Washington paved way for gay rights too

By Malcolm Lazin, Special to CNN
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Wed August 28, 2013
August 28, 1963, was one of the most important days for the civil rights movement. Over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Magnum photographer Leonard Freed (1929-2006) was there documenting that historic day. August 28, 1963, was one of the most important days for the civil rights movement. Over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Magnum photographer Leonard Freed (1929-2006) was there documenting that historic day.
HIDE CAPTION
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Malcolm Lazin grew up in the segregated world of the North
  • He says the March on Washington was a "magical moment"
  • Lazin: Martin Luther King's words inspired broader rights movements
  • He says that from 1979 to 1993, protests for gay rights grew ever larger, stronger

Editor's note: Malcolm Lazin is executive director of Equality Forum, an LGBT civil rights organization which focuses on education and coordinates LGBT History Month in October. He is a former federal prosecutor and chair of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission.

(CNN) -- In 1961, my senior year in a rural Central Pennsylvania high school, I competed in the oratorical contest with a speech titled, "The Plight of the American Negro." My teacher informed me if I wanted to win, I had chosen a wrong and contentious topic.

While I was raised in the North, attitudes about Negroes were similar to those in the South.

From a relatively inactive movement in early 1960, dramatic events for racial equality captured national attention between 1961 and 1963 -- Freedom Rides, Interstate Commerce Commission's desegregation order, Voting Education Project, integration of the University of Mississippi, Gov. George Wallace's intervention against desegregating the University of Alabama, Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, national awareness of White Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan brutality.

Malcolm Lazin
Malcolm Lazin

When I arrived in the capital as a college student to take summer classes in 1963, I heard about a national demonstration planned at the Lincoln Memorial for late August. Washington was not only below the Mason Dixon line, but it was then in many ways a outhern city. Few blacks attended Washington's white colleges and universities. Black collegians attended Howard University.

At my college, there were two black undergraduates, one of whom was from Africa. Job opportunities for non-college educated blacks were mostly in servile roles. College educated blacks were principally offered positions as teachers in colored public schools and ministers in colored churches.

The Kennedy administration, fearing unrest, discouraged the demonstration. Lead organizers A. Philip Randolph and openly gay Bayard Rustin were not deterred.

On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, I joined an estimated 250,000 black and some white Americans at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. For me, it was important that I attend. Being a Jewish-American, the Holocaust was a recent and painful reminder of unfettered prejudice. Negro lynchings without arrests reminded me of the horror of the pogroms that Jews experienced in Europe, while authorities looked the other way.

The March was a magical moment. Ordinary folks, mostly dressed as if they were going to church arrived from rural towns and large cities. Despite the repression exercised by authorities in the South, they were not intimidated. The magnitude of the largest crowd ever assembled on the National Mall inspired everyone. The statue of the Great Emancipator symbolized the long sought aspirations for a better life, equality and equal justice.

50 years since 'I Have a Dream'
March on Washington remembered
John Lewis remembers MLK speech

It was a hot day with lots of speeches. While Dr. King is recognized today as America's preeminent civil rights leader, his numerous co-organizers also spoke that day. One was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress. Jews were among the early white supporters of civil rights. Rabbi Prinz was a German Jew who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Nazi persecution. His speech lived up to his honored placement between Mahalia Jackson's spirituals and Dr. King's speech.

When Dr. King began "I Have a Dream," I was struck as if by lightning. It was akin to hearing Moses speak to the heavens. His speech was a defining moment for those assembled and for Americans watching television in living rooms across the nation. The March led to a Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the late 1980s, I came out as a gay man and became increasingly involved in LGBT civil rights. I met Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, the mother and father of the LGBT civil rights movement. They helped organize the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall and Liberty Bell each July 4 from 1965 to 1969. The Annual Reminders, the first organized demonstrations for gay equality, laid the groundwork for the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

While working on "Gay Pioneers," a documentary to chronicle this history, I learned that the March on Washington had empowered early gay activists. They followed Dr. King's protocol of non-violence, decorum and picketing. It informed me of the March's pivotal impact on gay activism.

Gay pioneer Jack Nichols stated, "We had marched with Martin Luther King, seven of us from the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1963, and from that time on, we'd always had our dream about a (gay) march of similar proportions."

The first Annual Reminder on July 4, 1965, in Philadelphia had 40 participants. It was the largest demonstration for gay equality in the history of the world. By the 1969 Annual Reminder, the number swelled to 160 picketers.

From 1979 to 1993, a series of national marches on Washington for lesbian and gay rights drew, at first, tens of thousands and later hundreds of thousands of people -- culminating in the April 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation that attracted an estimated 1 million demonstrators.

In the years between the 1963 March on Washington and 1993, the AIDS epidemic and societal changes propelled by the African-American and women's civil rights movements helped launch LGBT from nascent to engaged activism. For me, the March 50 years ago was a transcendent moment in a lifelong engagement for everyone's civil rights.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King ascended a Mount Sinai. His biblical Dream forever changed institutional oppression, our nation and the world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Malcolm Lazin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT