Where Courage is Found

Less than a month ago I received a letter from Rev. Bernice King, CEO of The King Center. "I would like to personally extend an invitation to you to speak during the 50th Anniversary Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial," she wrote. King asked that, as Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, I reflect on the event's themes of "freedom to prosper in life, freedom to peacefully co-exist, and freedom to participate in government."

Given Ms. King's public comments addressing the nuanced dimensions of her personal views regarding the dignity and rights of LGBT people, I was particularly impressed by the invitation. I was also, of course, truly daunted, given the magnitude of the occasion.

How can anyone do justice to what happened on those steps 50 years ago? In the 1990s, I worked on a PBS documentary, Out of the Past that included a profile of Bayard Rustin, a principal organizer of the original March, and a Black gay man. I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, trying to imagine what Rustin saw that day: a vast crowd that had come together at an event he convened and when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would deliver his most influential speech that would change history.

But Rustin did not deliver a speech that day and was not listed among the speakers. He instead took to the podium in a role originally assigned to his mentor and friend, A. Philip Randolph, to lead the crowd in the recitation of the platform of the March. While insiders understood his role in that great day, and in the course of the civil rights movement, few others knew who he was. The marchers never heard Rustin in his own words.

How far we have come. I was invited not despite of, but because of my role as a leader in the fight for full rights and dignity for LGBT people. At the anniversary, I was by no means the only "out" person in the program: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Mary Kay Henry and Bend the Arc CEO Alan van Capelle all spoke movingly from the distinct perspectives of their respective leadership positions.

However, we still face huge challenges as members of a civil and human rights struggle, and as Americans committed to seeing Dr. Martin Luther King's "great vaults of opportunity" opened to everyone. As President Jimmy Carter said in plain terms at the event, we are moving backwards on civil rights in this country.

Today, our schools are struggling as never before. And the willingness to work together towards effective solutions is almost nonexistent. I find that there are many more days now than before where the broken state of governance at most levels can lead me to feel hopeless. On those days I force myself to keep going, understanding the urgent stakes, and remembering the sacrifices of those who have gone before.

These days, I find that I feel greatest urgency not because I myself am a lesbian, but because I am a mother, an education advocate and someone fighting for a brighter future for so many young people who lack the opportunity to thrive.

When my two minutes came, I walked across the steps of the Lincoln Memorial strengthened by the knowledge that friends and colleagues sat in the audience - including Dominique Walker, sister of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who traveled to the Mall with 100 fellow students from Bennett College. I took to the podium determined to do right by Carl's memory and those of Sakia Gunn, Gwen Araujo, Larry King, and far too many others whose names I could not mention in my brief time onstage.

After speaking, I waited in the rain with tens of thousands of others to hear from President Obama. In closing the day, the President called upon us all to honor the incredible legacy of the original March on Washington by both acknowledging our gains and making a clear-eyed assessment of the hard work that remains to achieve real justice, freedom and equality for all Americans.

We must commit, he said, to "keep marching," a task that requires dedication and courage - courage we can find "when we turn not from each other or on each other but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That's where courage comes from."

And ultimately, the incredible opportunity to stand on those steps last week earned me something truly precious - just as the President said it would. At the end of the day, as I walked back to my office from the National Mall amidst the throngs of people leaving the event, a woman came up to me and took my hand. "I heard you up there," she said, "Keep pushing, keep pushing." Finding that we do not walk alone - that's where courage is found.