In the mid sixties, during a spring break in my program as a graduate student at the University of Kansas, I had the opportunity to travel to Louisiana with a professor and several other students for a week of work on a voter registration campaign. This was after the assassination of JFK, but before Congress passed any voter rights legislation. At that time, if a white resident wanted to register he was accepted immediately, but if a black resident wanted to register he was given a “literacy test” that consisted of writing from dictation, without spelling errors, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. The city of Bogalusa, LA, on the Louisiana-Missippi border, had an active civil rights group and was planning a demonstration march to be followed by a rally in the black high school with James Forman, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, speaking.
In a union hall of a predominantly black union, we volunteers would coach potential voter registrants. We also agreed to join the march, realizing that we might be arrested for being part of the demonstration. The most significant part of the week for me was the times when each of us were paired up with a local resident, and we went from house to house to meet people in the black community and encourage them to take the risk of attempting voter registration.
I thought, at the time, that we were trying to change the attitudes of the black people there – to make them more willing to confront the racism of the south. I didn't realize how much this experience would change me – but by the end of the week I recognized that I saw the black people of that community not as people different from me, but as part of one human race. The cloud of racism that affects everyone born and raised in the United States had been lifted – if only briefly.
As I think back on those days, I realize that it was the white students, the black civil rights workers who accompanied us, and the black residents who opened their doors for us that led to this change in my psyche. There's much soul searching that white people can do to help eliminate racism within themselves. There's much that black people can do by joining together to work with each other to end racism. But in the end it takes black and white people working together to reach the understanding that lessens the systemic racism of America.
On the weekend of April 22-24, Easton Mountain will hold a retreat – Gay Men of African Descent – providing an opportunity for our black brothers to meet together with gay black leaders in an atmosphere that is welcoming of both their black and queer identities. This step – gay men of color coming together – is a necessary first step. But I hope this will lead to other retreats where black and white gay men can come together to work for a society where people, as Dr Martin Luther King said, “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."