Remembering Civil Rights in 1963, 50 Years On

President Obama’s unprecedented endorsement of gay rights in his inauguration address last week — delivered on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday — marks the beginning of a year when Americans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of so many groundbreaking events of 1963: children defying dogs and firehoses in Birmingham, President Kennedy’s endorsement of civil rights as a moral cause, the church bombing that claimed the lives of four little girls in Alabama, and the March on Washington. As the nation remembers these important milestones, it is important not to forget the work of a long-forgotten activist who emerged publicly that year to link civil rights to women’s rights, and ultimately to her own closeted sexual identity. In doing so, an African American woman lawyer named Pauli Murray strongly criticized the leadership of the civil rights movement for excluding women as it was planning for the march that would bring 250,000 protesters to Washington that fall. More than any other individual, it is Murray who deserves credit for expanding the language of civil rights beyond the African American struggle for equality to women’s rights, and ultimately to what she later called “human rights” — and for paving the way for a President of the United States to claim that it included gays and lesbians as well.

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