A History Lesson for Exodus Vice President Randy Thomas

Jim Burroway

February 26th, 2007

Last week, we learned that financial guru Suze Orman would announce that she is a lesbian in a New York Times Magazine article that appeared this past Sunday:

Are you married? I’m in a relationship with life. My life is just out there. I’m on the road every day. I love my life.

Meaning what? Do you live with anyone? K.T. is my life partner. K.T. stands for Kathy Travis. We’re going on seven years. I have never been with a man in my whole life. I’m still a 55-year-old virgin.

Would you like to get married to K.T.? Yes. Absolutely. Both of us have millions of dollars in our name. It’s killing me that upon my death, K.T. is going to lose 50 percent of everything I have to estate taxes. Or vice versa.

It looks like talk about all this wealth rubbed Randy Thomas the wrong way. Thomas, who has recently been promoted to Vice President of Exodus International, provided a rather illogical reason for discounting the quest for equal rights for gays and lesbians as having anything to do with civil rights. His complaint? Apparently some among us are too rich and the rest of us haven’t suffered enough. This somehow disqualifies us from pressing for our civil rights:

From another angle, this also does not help some in the gay activist community with their attempts to make this battle, over redefining marriage, a “civil rights” issue. Suze and her partner worrying over their “millions” doesn’t have the same ring or impact as watching young black people being knocked down by fully opened fire hoses and mauled by tax payer funded police dogs. I don’t think Suze or Tammy would ever make that comparison but some in the activist community do equate the marriage battle with the civil rights battle of the African American community and that is tragic.

What great timing! As it happens, we are in our last days of Black History Month. So I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce Randy to one of the great heroes of African-American history.

Madam C.J. WalkerMadam C.J. Walker rose from being an uneducated washing woman in St. Louis to becoming one of the richest women in American. Through her own determination, she put herself and her daughter through school. And when she started to have problems with her hair falling out, she invented a line of hair care products which were designed and sold specially for African-American women. She soon become not just one of the wealthiest Black women in American, she was one of the wealthiest women in America period. She founded her business in 1906, and by 1913 her company employed twenty thousand sales agents in the United States, Central America and the Caribbean. Her sales agents, who were mostly of African descent themselves, earned $25 a week — a far cry from the $2 a week that washing women normally earned at that time. When Madam Walker died in 1915 at her New York mansion, she left behind an estate worth some seven million dollars in today’s money.

At a time when it was extremely difficult for women or blacks to succeed in the business world, Madam C.J. Walker broke both barriers and served as an inspiration for many generations of Black women throughout North America.

No, as Randy suggests, to try to compare Suze Orman to Black civil rights protests of the nineteen sixties would certainly miss the point. Suze’s success and wealth does nothing to negate her rights to equality in America any more than does Madam Walker’s. And neither woman’s success undermines the justness of equality for the rest of us.

If fire hoses and mauling police dogs are the measures by which you judge a civil rights movement, then I can truly thank God that in America at least, we fail those tests. You’ll have to look elsewhere for it. (Russia, Poland, Iran, Nigeria and Nazi Germany come to mind.) All we have is Stonewall. And while Stonewall represents a turning point for the gay rights movement, it’s not Selma.

But the legitimacy of one’s civil rights isn’t found in brutality or the lack of it, nor is it diminished by success or fortune. It is found simply in the recognition of what is right and just. Madam Walker succeeded despite the lack of voting rights legislation, hate crimes and anti-discrimination protections, the Civil Rights act, or Loving vs. Virginia. She also succeeded despite the fact that women were often not permitted to enter into financial agreements without the signature of a husband. She didn’t need any of those protections in order to be successful. But by no measure does that detract from the simple justness of the cause for equality for all African-Americans — and everyone else, for that matter.

Suze Orman didn’t have nearly the obstacles to overcome that Madam Walker did. Suze lives in a far better America than Madam Walker’s America, and Madam Walker had a lot to do with that. But equality is equality; it’s just that simple. And success, no matter how successful, is no substitute for it. That’s what makes it a civil rights issue.

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