There are many defining moments of the Civil Rights movement, from the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education to the March on Washington. But the truly transformative moments were those that not only changed laws, but changed the hearts of Americans. Moments that, to this day, evoke not only outrage but heartbreak, even decades later. Moments like the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three college-aged civil rights workers, two white and one black, who were working to register black voters in Mississippi when they were were gunned down by the Klu Klux Klan in 1964. These deaths transformed what was seen as a Southern American issue and a black American issue into an issue of importance to all Americans.
I sense that the Orlando massacre may have a similar impact. In the aftermath of this tragedy, it is my hope that all marginalized communities — black, brown, LGBTQ, and others — may come together in a way they've been previously unable to fully do.
After what happened at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, much of the nation came together to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Thousands upon thousands of mourners attended vigils in dozens of states, and the GoFundMe campaign set up to provide financial assistance to the families of the Orlando victims has shattered previous fundraising records, in more than $3 million from 74,000-plus individuals in just 48 hours. As we speak, that number is growing. The country is rallying around its LGBTQ community in a way that hasn't been seen before.
As Dr. Phil told his audience, which is comprised of Americans in plenty of conservative communities: "The attack on Pulse in Orlando was an attack on me, you, and every American. No matter where you stood on the issue of gay rights the day before this shooting, join me today as we stand shoulder to shoulder with these victims and these victims families. When Americans are attacked we are all one. Join me as we stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters." Many Americans have done just that.
Despite the sorrow still fresh from Orlando, this makes me hopeful that the deadliest mass shooting in American history will, in the end, bring us closer together. I suspect that Orlando's events will unite less privileged Americans, after a complicated and at times contentious history, in a way that is not only essential for America’s modern-day civil rights movement, but essential for America, period.
A 1964 missing persons poster of civil rights heroes Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner.
For many black Americans, it has been tough watching as the economic prospects of the black community arguably decline in the Obama era, while various black civil rights gains have also begun to erode. By contrast, President Obama’s leadership on LGBTQ rights issues has solidified his place in history. Decades from now, his administration’s role in ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell and advancing same-sex marriage will ensure he's remembered as a civil rights icon in the same way President Lyndon Johnson is. But for many black people — and I count myself among them — there has been a question mark. Was it not possible for the first black president to devote the same measure of passion and political savvy to helping black Americans gain policy ground, we wondered, just as he has to gay Americans?
Focusing on the distinction between various marginalized group's progress isn't necessarily useful. There’s a not-particularly-flattering phrase used to describe the often-fractious relationship between various minority groups: The suffering Olympics. The "suffering Olympics" goes something like this: One person talks about the suffering their great grandparents endured in slavery, while another weighs in with the story of their grandparents surviving the Holocaust. At its best, the exchange of such information can lead to shared empathy and the discovery of a common sense of purpose, which can have extraordinary results. The most obvious example is the number of Jewish Americans who became active in the pursuit of Civil Rights for black Americans — Jewish Americans like the murdered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
At its worst, however, the "suffering Olympics" can be hugely destructive. Individuals can make the decision that if my suffering is worse than your suffering, I’m not going to help end your suffering until I have ended my own. Of course, this only ensures that everybody suffers even longer, while bigots enjoy the advantages of watching minorities divide and conquer each other so they don’t have to.
I believe the "suffering Olympics" has, at times, created a wedge between African Americans and LGBTQ Americans. If anything good is to come out of an event of the scale and scope of Orlando, it may be that that wedge is removed and replaced with a sense of solidarity.
Though my interviews over the years with high profile African Americans indicate that the widespread homophobia that is still attributed to the broader black community is overblown, that doesn’t mean the relationship between the black community and the LGBTQ community has been an easy one — particularly during the era of the first black president.
Perhaps, with this tragedy, we have gotten an answer that President Obama seemed to have along. That, fundamentally all disenfranchised groups — black Americans; the Latinx and LGBT individuals murdered in Orlando; the Muslim Americans whose presumptive GOP nominee for president blames them for it — are in one boat together. We either float together or sink as one. When bigotry against one is halted, it advances us all.
What Orlando reminded us is that, while minorities may suffer in different ways at different times, and to different degrees, there is more that unites us than divides us — including often being hated by the same people. A colleague of the Orlando gunman shared in a recent interview that the attacker also despised women and black Americans.
The other aspect that unites disenfranchised groups across race, class and gender lines is that we often display awe-inspiring resilience in the face of bigotry and brutality. Just as the bombing of a church that killed four little black girls in 1963 and the murder of nine black churchgoers just under a year ago did not stop black Americans from marching forward, this tragedy will not stop gay Americans and their allies from marching forward either.
What it can do is ensure that we march forward together, marginalized people of all kinds, more united than ever.
Image: FBI/Creative Commons (1), MSNBC (1)