Black History Month: Gay youths, Black and white, led North Carolina civil rights fight
Charlotte Pride is celebrating Black History Month with special highlights every Tuesday and Thursday, profiling Black LGBTQ change-makers and history with a special connection to Charlotte and the Carolinas. Our profiles will include history-makers from decades past, as well as those heroes living and making their mark in our own time.
Today, we’re reaching back into the past with a longer profile on Quinton Baker, a key organizer and leader in the North Carolina movement against Jim Crow. Baker, who is gay, was joined in his work by other gay men, including anti-racist white gay men. The article below was originally published Workers World on March 10, 2006. If you’re captivated by Baker’s story recounted here, you’ll definitely want to either read or listen to an oral history interview with Baker, conducted for UNC’s Southern Oral History Program.
Gay youths, Black & white, led North Carolina fight
By Leslie Feinberg
Gay youths, Black and white, led breakthrough struggles against racism and Jim Crow apartheid in North Carolina—the Durham and Chapel Hill freedom struggles—during the early 1960s, and won victories that reverberated throughout the Deep South.
Historian James T. Sears, a significant white contributor to Southern struggle history, devotes a whole chapter about three of the main organizers of the North Carolina movement in his book “Lonely Hunters—An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968.”
Quinton Baker, African American and gay, was a key leader. Baker was born on the coastal plain of North Carolina in 1942. He grew up in Greenville, a town of 21,000, making a living by shining shoes. While not transgender in today’s terms, Baker once explained, “when you speak the way I speak in the South, you stand out. For a lot of people my speech pattern was feminine.” But, he added about growing up in his community, “Back then, you could be funny but not ostracized. The attitude was one of quiet acceptance.”
Baker was a senior in an all-Black high school on the day—Feb. 1, 1960—when four African American first-year students at Agricultural and Technical College (A&T) ordered coffee at a downtown Greensboro, N.C., restaurant from a counter that only served whites. They were refused service.
The next morning, 27 Black A&T students arrived together and ordered coffee at that counter. “We are prepared to keep coming for two years if we have to,” one of the youth vowed.
The “sit-ins” electrified the South. One week later, the sit-in movement sparked similar protests in North Carolina cities with historically Black colleges: Durham, Elizabeth City, High Point and Winston-Salem. Another week passed and the sit-ins at lunch counters to protest racist segregation had spread from Nashville, Tenn., to Tallahassee, Fla.
Sears noted, “By the end of March, 68 cities in 13 Southern states reported sit-ins, including a wade-in at the all-white swimming pool in Biloxi, Miss., a read-in at the library in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a host of kneel-ins at all-white churches.”
Hundreds of youth activists were arrested and locked up, where they faced serious charges. City officials in Orangeburg, S.C., gave the go-ahead to turn power hoses on student demonstrators and then held them in an open stockade in 40-degree weather. Tallahassee cops teargassed youth activists. Klan mobs met civil rights demonstrators with bats and pipes in Bessemer and Montgomery, Ala.
This struggle marked the qualitative opening of a youth-led civil rights movement, and it was the real beginning of the larger student struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. By the day Baker graduated high school in May 1960, a few businesses had agreed to end white-supremacist segregation of their lunch counters. Within one year, the struggle won desegregation of lunch counters in 126 Southern cities.
Baker was drawn into this vortex of struggle. He said he looked forward to the fall of 1960 when he would enter North Carolina College (NCC) in Durham. Black college students were organizing. Lacey Streeter, another native of Greenville, led the NAACP college chapter at NCC.
Baker later recalled, “By the time I got to college I was so ready and prepared [for struggle] that it became almost more important to me than the academic work. It was the force.”
He added, “My first semester I was in the NAACP and I was demonstrating. I didn’t stop for the four years I was there!”
As Baker organized boycotts, sit-ins, rallies and street demonstrations, his tactical and organizational skills became renowned. He helped other young leaders to develop. He became president of the NAACP state youth organization and an NAACP Commando.
Baker later recalled, “A lot of student leaders and activists were often gay men,” adding that the men weren’t often aware of lesbian activists.
Baker worked closely with two gay, white anti-racist activists.
Anti-racist struggle awakens white activists
Pat Cusick, like other white youth who were shoulder-to-shoulder in the struggle, had grown up under white supremacist indoctrination. These youth had to break with the racist ideology they had been taught in order to put their bodies on the line to end Jim Crow laws.
Cusick worked at a General Electric plant in Rome, Ga., after the Army “honorably” discharged him in 1953. The voice of Lillian Smith, a now-famous Southern anti-racist white writer, reached Cusick after she sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times hailing the 1954 Supreme Court decision that formally ended racist segregation in schools as “every child’s Magna Carta.”
Smith, while she did not use the word lesbian to describe herself, had a female life partner.
Cusick went to school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill—a sister city to Durham, but with a much smaller Black population. He worked as a campus custodian in 1962 while he studied mathematics.
When the writer James Baldwin, African American and gay, came to Durham to speak to the students, Cusick traveled from Chapel Hill to hear him.
Baker was there, too. He explains, “We were interested in him because of his racial analysis and his analysis of our condition, more so than his writing having sexual undertones. Of course there were always attempts to read materials that talked about homosexuality. He came down in support of what we were doing.”
Cusick first became an activist in the “ban the bomb” movement for nuclear disarmament. He later said that in his early years as a white Southern activist, “It was much easier for me to be against the war in Vietnam and form the Student Peace Union than to get involved in civil rights—I never even considered gay rights.”
An openly gay white youth, John Dunne, also joined the SPU. Sears wrote, “John’s apartment was the first place where Pat [Cusick] talked at length with other gay men who shared his passion for social justice: ‘We talked about homosexuality and bisexuality mostly on an intellectual level with a bit of sexual tension. At the forefront, though, were discussions about the peace movement and civil rights.’”
As the SPU grew, Cusick said he realized, “How could we be talking about all of this peace stuff when there was no peace between the races.” The white SPU activists began a systematic desegregation effort in Chapel Hill, including organizing boycotts of white-segregationist businesses.
Dunne returned to Chapel Hill on May 20, 1963, from Birmingham, Ala., where he had been arrested on charges of loitering and failure to obey a police officer. It happened while he was working to locate Black youth who had been arrested after Bull Connorpolice force turned power hoses on 600 schoolchildren. He was awaiting appeal of his sentence: a year behind bars and a $200 fine.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after being arrested for leading the Good Friday march there. The powerful impact of the Birmingham demonstrations was felt throughout the South, including Durham—where young civil rights activists readied themselves to wage “an all-out war against segregation.”
However, one white, gay North Carolina student journalist actively campaigned on the wrong side of civil rights struggle and desegregation. His name, now familiar, is Armistead Maupin Jr.—a William F. Buckley admirer. (Sears)
Baker helps lead Chapel Hill movement
Baker had become a prominent and seemingly tireless organizer of the widening and deepening Durham protest movement. And he agreed in 1963 to work with the Chapel Hill movement, too. Soon after they met in that struggle, Baker and Dunne became lovers.
“With Baker and the Chapel Hill Black teens involved,” Sears explained, “tactics changed from picketing to sit-ins and marches.” As the summer of 1963 began, activists were organizing three marches a week, while picketing numerous white-owned segregated businesses.
Cusick recalls Baker teaching demonstrators how to fall and protect themselves from the police. “This created the ire from the Chapel Hill liberals,” he said, “since we were using nonviolence as a tactic, not a philosophy.”
When criticized by more liberal elements for using these tactics to break the law, Baker said, “We would reply, ‘If you agree with my cause, then what you need to do is to act on the fact that you believe in the cause—don’t worry about my tactics. Don’t concentrate on what I’m doing. Concentrate on what you’re doing that supports the cause that we both believe in.’”
Cusick described the impact of the arrest of 34 demonstrators on July 19—including himself—in what was to become a turning point in the Chapel Hill freedom movement. “Like most whites, [for me] a policeman was a friendly image. There is nothing like it for you to get your head whipped, your teeth knocked in, and your ribs kicked. You come to a knowledge that is much different.”
In jail, Pat and fellow activist prisoners read and discussed Baldwin’s “Another Country,” which wove themes of societal racism and homophobia.
Cusick said, “There were more gays than people ever realized in the civil rights movement. But you wouldn’t see it from the outside.” He added, “In the midst of a movement that was not directly related to sexual orientation but more involved in day-to-day social justice issues with a common enemy, the movement would bring you closer together. During that period there was not a great deal of conversation about sexual orientation.”
Baker was also imprisoned for his activism in 1963, in Morgantown Prison Camp—one of two desegregated N.C. state prisons. He observed, “The chain gang was one of those experiences you say, ‘I’m glad I had it; I never want to do it again.’ It was there I really learned about the struggle of what it means to be human.”
Baker wrote letters for Black prisoners and at least one white. He said, “I learned a lot about people and their emotions when I had to convey their feelings to someone who they loved or cared about. Having to read, talk to, and see people, and understanding what kinds of lives they have, I began to appreciate what being human is about.
“I began to recognize the superficiality of some of the things we surround ourselves with and how we separate ourselves. It was an incredible beginning for me in my quest to understand about being a human being and how to put into that context my blackness and my sexual orientation.”
In August 1963, as the March on Washington was drawing huge numbers, the impact of the gay-baiting and red-baiting political attacks on Bayard Rustin—the march’s leading tactician—was also felt by civil rights activists of all nationalities and sexualities in the Deep South, including Baker, who had been released from jail.
‘The tactician who brought the connection’
Baker said of some of the white civil rights activists he worked with: “There were really some good solid white people who came into the movement and got to understand where we were at that time. … Those white people who got beat up with me, went to jail with me, sat down with me, and got peed on, it is very difficult to question their commitment. Whether they had fought through all of their personal racism is a different story—they were struggling with it.”
As civil disobedience spread, more activists—Black and white—went to jail. On Jan. 12, 1964, the Chapel Hill Freedom Committee organized a 13-mile march from Chapel Hill to Durham. There, at least 500 crowded into the First Baptist Church to hear CORE national chairperson, Floyd McKissick, and John Knowles, a gay white author of “A Separate Peace,” speak at the indoor rally.
CORE leader James Farmer told the cheering crowd that night, “Unless Chapel Hill is an open city by Feb. 1, it will become the focal point of all our efforts. All our resources, staff funds and training will be centered here.”
In April 1964, Baker, Cusick and Dunne were sentenced to 6 months, 1 year and 3 years of hard labor, respectively. By July 2, the struggle had forced President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act that barred racist segregation of public accommodations
Cusick concluded that in North Carolina, Quinton Baker had been “the tactician who brought the connection to the statewide movement.”
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