By Nathan McCall and Rudolph Byrd
Last week, Bishop Eddie Long — flanked by the Rev. Bernice King — led a strange and misguided demonstration that has left many in the Atlanta area shocked, angered and mystified. Using the King Center as his launching pad, Long, the flamboyant leader of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, led thousands in a march against the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
Long characterized the march as a demonstration in support of family values. But it may well stand as the first time in memory that black people, marching under the banner of civil rights, have essentially campaigned against ourselves.
In a very real way, this homophobia disguised as a so-called “moral agenda” could actually endanger black people’s lives.
Despite swift and strong criticism from civil rights leaders, Long has insisted that he will not be “silenced” on the issue. That may be a good thing, since his public spectacle raises more questions than answers. The primary question that Long’s crusade raises is this: What about the monumental problems facing blacks? More than ever, those problems require a show of unity. So why would Long choose to focus upon such a divisive issue? Why now?
Long casts his homophobia as an element of his Christian faith. But anyone tempted to accept this position should be reminded that Ku Klux Klan members, along with a host of other crackpots and demagogues, also insisted they were led by God.
The civil rights of gays and lesbians do not, as Long suggests, threaten to destabilize our communities. Our communities are at grave risk because of an array of other factors: drugs; unemployment; police profiling, resulting in high incarceration rates; the pandemic of AIDS, which disproportionately affects African-American women. Further, our communities are at risk because of a low regard for higher education among our youth, sexism and the glamorizing of violence. The list of real threats to black survival goes on and on.
So why, in the midst of all this wrenching madness, would a black preacher who claims to lead a flock of 25,000 choose to target gays and lesbians?
If his motivations are murky, it is quite clear that Long’s crusade may undermine our communities’ efforts to ward off some of our most serious threats. As a result of public demonstrations like his, persons with AIDS will be less likely to come forward for help and even more lives may be lost to the disease.
Homophobia and denial about homosexuality are already major challenges among African-Americans. That was demonstrated at Morehouse College two years ago, when one student, wielding a baseball bat, brutally beat a schoolmate he suspected of being gay.
It is unlikely that the Lithonia preacher will be as eager to grab the public limelight to accept responsibility for acts of anti-gay violence that could extend from his reckless holy war.
Another disturbing aspect of Long’s demonstration was the participation of the Rev. Bernice King. An assistant at Long’s church, she referred in a speech to the bishop as a “prophet.” The word itself, along with her association, ascribed to Long an almost cultlike status and symbolically anoints him as the heir apparent to her father’s leadership mantle.
King’s stance places her in direct conflict with her mother, Coretta Scott King, who has worked hard to ensure that her husband’s legacy is not misappropriated. For decades, Mrs. King has expressed support for the civil rights of gays and lesbians. However, she may be forced to take a stronger public stand to prevent the crusaders from distorting her husband’s dream.
To their credit, members of Atlanta’s civil rights establishment, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, have denounced Long’s actions. If they are to prove themselves consistent in the fight for justice, other leaders, including Andrew Young, may now be required to campaign against a black preacher. They should do so with all the fervor with which they fought the Klan.
Long sought to establish his civil rights credentials by lighting an Olympic-style torch from the eternal flame at the King Center, where the march began. The action leads one to wonder what King, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, might have said about the bishop’s hate crusade.
When one studies King’s writings, it is clear that Long’s mission to target gays and lesbians is antithetical to the civil rights legend’s vision of the beloved community, where all men and women, regardless of difference, constitute one community.
“Now we have got to get this thing right,” King said during a famous 1967 speech. “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best . . . is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”
Rudolph Byrd is an associate professor of liberal studies at Emory University. Nathan McCall is a visiting lecturer in journalism at Emory.