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Remembering Seneca Falls, Selma And Stonewall


In his second inaugural address yesterday, President Obama emphasized equality and the struggles for civil rights.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forbearers to Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a king proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

CONAN: A convention in New York at 1848, a bloody encounter on an Alabama bridge in 1965, an early morning clash at a bar in Greenwich Village in 1969 - today, the stories of what happened in Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. We begin in Seneca Falls. Sally McMillen is a professor of history at Davidson College, author "Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement," and joins us now from the studios of WDAV in Davidson, North Carolina. Good to have you on the program with us today.

SALLY MCMILLEN: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

CONAN: And this...

MCMILLEN: I was also delighted to have President Obama mention Seneca Falls.

CONAN: Well, it began with an S, but was it the beginning of the women's rights movement? Is he right about that?

MCMILLEN: Yes, I think he was, because what Seneca Falls did was - it was a meeting that attracted some 300 people, primarily from the region of Upstate New York. But what it was - it represented, really, the galvanization of a movement that precipitated a greater commitment by women to really claim their rights and end their subordinate status in this country.

CONAN: And primarily, the right to vote.

MCMILLEN: That became the primary cause, but initially, women were really seeking a broad range of rights, and to try to end injustice in this country. It's, I think, hard to remember that in 1848, women had virtually no rights. They were totally subordinate to men. Their major role was in the home, to raise their kids and take care of their household. They, for the most part, could not attend college. They had no access to major professions. They were paid far lower wages than men. And when they married, they basically gave up all their rights, all their property, any wages they earn to men. So this was a situation that woman began to realize needed a change.

SARAH PARCAK: And primarily, it was involved, initially, women in the anti-slavery movement, who were fighting for the rights of slaves and to free slaves. And in that struggle, they began to realize that they were not free. And so they vowed that this must - that this situation had to change.

CONAN: One of the products of this two days of conversation in Upstate New York was a list of resolutions and an historic moment.

It was completely historic, and it was Elizabeth Cady Stanton who was one of the five women who helped organize this convention, who drew up sort of what became the guiding document of the women's rights movement initially, called the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. And used, as her model, the Declaration of Independence, which was kind of ironic. But instead of blaming George III, she blamed men for women's subordination. And her opening statement was, of course: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal. And in that document, she laid out all the injustices, and then offered resolutions to - for women to gain equality - to equality in this country. And, of course, the more - as mentioned, the most controversial demand of all was the right to vote.

Which would come, what, 70 years later?

MCMILLEN: Seventy-two years later it took women to finally gain the right to vote, with the passage of the 19th Amendment. So it was a long struggle, and these women were absolutely amazing, so dedicated. Just - they just never gave up.

CONAN: And, again, how did you feel yesterday when you heard President Obama cite Seneca Falls?

MCMILLEN: I really was - as I said, I was delighted. It meant a lot to me, and I'm sure it meant a lot to women. The only thing that makes me sad is probably a lot of people don't know what Seneca Falls was. But I hope that will change.

CONAN: Sally McMillen, thank you very much for your time today.

MCMILLEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Sally McMillen, professor of history at Davidson College, joined us again from member station WDAV there in Davidson. More than a hundred years after Seneca Falls, another struggle for voting rights was under way: 1965, and civil rights demonstrators in Selma Alabama attempted to march peacefully to the state capital in Montgomery to protest the violent disenfranchisement of black voters.

Here to tell us the story of what happened is Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University where he directs the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. And good of you to be with us today.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Good to be with you.

CONAN: And take us to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th, 1965.

CARSON: Well, that was one of the main confrontations of the struggle for voting rights. It was the climax of a long campaign that has been going on for a long time, with the students and the student non-violent coordinating committee, with Martin Luther King and many other groups that were there.

And of course the idea of the march to Montgomery came after the killing of a civil rights worker in Marion, in Alabama. And this was a protest march to get the attention of Governor George Wallace who had been - pledged to continue segregation now and forever in his inauguration address.

CONAN: Segregation today, segregation forever. And the marchers reached the bridge and tried to cross.

CARSON: Yes, they did. And they were confronted on the other side by state troopers who were sent there by Wallace, with orders to prevent them from marching from Selma to Montgomery. So when they got to the base of the bridge, that was when they had that confrontation that was televised and became one of the iconic events of the struggle.

CONAN: What happened?

CARSON: Initially, I think the idea was that they were just going to sit down. And then the mounted troopers began charging them, firing teargas and beating them with billy clubs, forcing them back over the bridge. I think from - the major thing that was somewhat of a surprise is that King wasn't there. He wasn't aware that this was going to be this violent confrontation, and he went back to Atlanta to preach in his church. So the marchers did not have him at the front.

But that would have made it even more of a, I guess, a confrontation, because of King's presence. But even without his presence, you know, this was something that was broadcast throughout the nation. I remember seeing it on television and immediately getting involved in protests. Where I was a student at UCLA, we went to the federal building, and many people throughout the nation went to their local federal buildings to demand federal intervention in this conflict in Alabama.

CONAN: It would be eight days later that President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act. And was that a coincidence?

CARSON: Well, he had said that he didn't want to introduce voting rights legislation. As you'll recall from that time, he was introducing his Great Society legislation, and he thought that after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that it was time for - to take a breath and to step back from further legislation. And the Selma-to-Montgomery march put that back on the agenda for immediate action and forced his hand.

CONAN: And there would be other marches on that route.

CARSON: Yes. Eventually, King came back and eventually got a court order allowing the marchers to go to Montgomery and the marchers arrived later in the month and - at the state capital. And a few months after that, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed so that this was the major victory of the struggle, because King had always felt that once black Americans got to vote, all the other gains of the civil rights struggle would be protected because they would now be voting and being able to exercise their political power.

CONAN: And if it sounds all like ancient history, the Supreme Court is reviewing parts of that 1965 Voting Rights Act in this term.

CARSON: Yes. Well one of the things is that the Voting Rights Act only applied to states that had legal barriers to voting, and that was mostly in the South. And I think, since that time, there's always been resentment in the South that they should not be covered by the Voting Rights Act anymore because those kinds of conditions no longer exist. But I think the counter-argument for that is that there's other ways of preventing people from voting other than just making it impossible for black people to register.

And the Voting Rights Act provides for federal clearance when changes are made in voting laws. And we know from the last election that there was efforts to change voting laws. And one the things this does is it says you can change your voting laws, but you have to make certain that these changes are not meant to disenfranchise certain groups of voters.

CONAN: Clayton Carson, thank you very much for reminding us about Selma.

CARSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford, author of many books, most recently, "Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr." out this month. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So we've talked about Seneca Falls and Selma. We now turn to Stonewall. Many observers surprised, yesterday, when President Obama invoked Stonewall alongside those other watershed civil rights events. It being the first time a president acknowledged a struggle for gay rights in inaugural address.

Here to remind us what happened at Stonewall is our former NPR colleague, Frank Browning. He is the author of many books, including "A Queer Geography: Journeys Toward A Sexual Self," and joins us now by phone from Paris. Frank, good to talk to you again.

FRANK BROWNING: Hey. Hi, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: And this - take us back to the early morning hours, June 28th, 1969, as police waited the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

BROWNING: Well, the Stonewall Inn was a pretty shabby place, generally believe to have been mafia-run like most of the gay bars in major American cities at the time. The people who went out were not the equivalence of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton, nor of the well established civil rights leaders. They were - what should I say? They were the outsiders of the outsiders of the outsiders. Hustlers, prostitutes, transvestites, people whom the respectable emerging gay world didn't want to have anything to do with.

But the police raided the bar as they often did of those kinds of bars at that time. And for some reason the people who were there, the clients, were fed up and they said no, and they fought back - fought back. You know, this is referred to as a riot. Well, I wouldn't call it a riot, and when I have written about it, from time to time, I still wouldn't. I'd say it was a rebellion. There were some bottles and cans thrown, and there were some people injured. And it continued down for several days. But it's a quintessentially American kind of event that didn't emerged from a movement, but the movement tried to capture the sentiment of that early morning.

CONAN: And when they rose up and said, enough, this harassment is going to stop, at least for tonight. That also forced that gay establishment you were talking about a moment ago to broaden its outlook.

BROWNING: Well, it did and it didn't. I'd say...


BROWNING: ...if it were to happen now, the American gay establishment might even take a greater distance than it did back then. I mean, to say there was an establishment, well, not quite sure. There was Tennessee Williams and there was Gore Vidal, they were quite well known, any number of actors from Cary Grant to Rock Hudson. Where they in a establishment? I don't know. There have certainly been changes.

And what was particularly distinctive about those people is that they were at the bottom of the heap. They have nothing to lose. And they were not ashamed of being sexual, much of what has happened in the success of the American and most other Western gay rights movements is to say, well, we're just like you, you know, we have families and we adopt kids. And now we can join the army. And we can teach in school. And so don't think of us as peculiar, but let's not talk about our habits.

And these people habits were their lives. And in that sense, it was a much more existential act that was captured - probably for the good, but often that these things kind of papered over, and it's put... I find it fascinating that Obama should mention it, courageous surely, but in a certain way odd because it doesn't fall exactly in the footsteps of Seneca Falls or someone.

CONAN: And which were much more conscious proceedings. But if you were to pick a moment in the gay rights struggle that emblemizes the movement, would that be it?

BROWNING: Well, that's - remember, Neal, I'm a writer, I'm a journalist, I'm not an activist. I have ideas and I have beliefs and commitments. Would that be it? I don't tend to read or write history in quite that way. I think events happened all over the place and some get recognized because somebody at a newspaper decided to cover it. I might remind you at almost exactly the same time, The New York Times ran something like a 3,000-word piece - I actually forget who was the editor at that point - talking about the danger of this gay rights movement that was a sickness that was going to spread across the nation and had to be stopped.

So, you know, when you talk about these things, the context is always more important to me than whether event launched a movement. And that movement, now, is interested in marriage - nuclear marriage being a dicey proposition for all the population - and then joining the military. It's about the last thing that the people in Stonewall would've imagined.

CONAN: Frank Browning, thanks very much. Good to talk to you.

BROWNING: Sure. Take care.

CONAN: Frank Browning, our former colleague here at NPR and author, living in Paris. Tomorrow, details of another clergy abuse scandal emerging in Los Angeles. We'll talk about what it's like to join the priesthood these days. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.