Saunders: Who gets to decide what’s a civil rights issue and what isn’t?

Clarence Henderson, far right, on the second day of the Woolworth’s sit-in. He’s with, from left, Joe McNeil, Franklin McCain and Billy Smith.
Clarence Henderson, far right, on the second day of the Woolworth’s sit-in. He’s with, from left, Joe McNeil, Franklin McCain and Billy Smith. ITVS

Really, reverends, this is the hill on which y’all want to plant your flag, the one that makes you descend your pulpits?

Tell the truth: When you saw that a large group of pastors, mainly African-American pastors, was gathering at the State Capitol on Tuesday and HB2 was the topic, didn’t you think they were gathering to express solidarity with their transgendered brethren and sisteren, members of the beleaguered minority who just want to stand, sit or primp in the bathroom of their choice?

Having themselves been members of a once-despised minority whose bathroom privileges were severely circumscribed, if not denied, by law because of their race, you had to figure these black pastors would thunder righteously against the same thing being done to another group.

You’d figure wrong. On many of the issues facing the black community, sad to say, the church has been darned near mute. On an issue such as this, though, one that will minimally – if at all – disrupt anyone’s life, they come out in full-throated opposition.


As a child in the South, I knew the humiliation that comes from being denied access to a restroom – any restroom – while you’re out shopping with your mother or at the movies, the agony of trying to divert your mind until you get home, regardless of how far from home you might be.

It didn’t always work, and at times I still seethe. Some of those preening pastors, with their pocket squares perfectly placed in luxurious suit coats, looked as old as I, so they are acquainted with those indignities, too.

Clarence Henderson, who was among the college students at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro who were jeered and sneered at and abused in 1960 when they sought to desegregate a Woolworth’s lunch counter – to, in other words, enjoy the civil right to eat wherever they wanted to – wrote last week objecting to the transgender fight for potty parity being called a civil rights issue.

Henderson, who wasn’t one of the original Greensboro Four but who still gets mad props for participating in the sit-in on the second day, wrote in an opinion piece in The Charlotte Observer that he is aghast that “civil rights” is being co-opted to describe the effort to allow transgenders to use the bathroom they want to use. Also in the piece, Henderson accused Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Obama Administration of trying to “pimp civil rights” to help Hillary Clinton.

Say what?

Henderson has undergone a transformation since he was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s not unusual, since most of us become more conservative in thought the older we get. I knew I was slipping into darkness the first time I thought, while watching “Soul Train,” “How did her mama let her out of the house wearing that dress?”

That’s why young people who claim to be conservatives scare the heck out of me. What do they transform into if, as knee babies, they are already to the right of Rick Santorum?

Henderson, of High Point, makes speeches across the nation. He is beloved by the Tea Party for what he calls his embrace of smaller government and his disdain for President Obama. Dude does realize, doesn’t he, that he’s aligning himself with the spiritual descendants of the people who punched, shoved, spat upon and poured bowls-ful of sugar onto the students who were demanding their rights, right?

Some of my best blacks are Republicans, and we need a presence in both major parties – but only if both parties want us. What the heck is up with these blacks who participated in iconic struggles by fiercely fighting the status quo becoming, in their dotage or sooner, reactionary Republicans?

▪ James Meredith, whose effort to enroll in the University of Mississippi in 1963 sparked riots by people who didn’t want him there and whose efforts to register blacks to vote got him shot down like a rabid dog, ran for office as a Republican and joined the staff of noted civil rights warrior Jesse Helms as a domestic adviser.

▪ Eldridge Cleaver, the late minister of information for the Black Panthers, became a supporter of Ronald Reagan – yes, the same Ronald Reagan who as governor warned in 1968, after Cleaver got a job teaching at UC-Berkeley, “If Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.”

And now Henderson.

When I spoke with him Wednesday, he said there was no one incident that turned him into a Republican. “When I started to read American history, did a comparative analysis, I saw in times past what the Republican Party had done in reference to black people as a race. I began to understand they had done a lot of things that were good for us as a race to be processed into the American system. I saw the Democratic Party as more of an enabler as far as entitlements were concerned. That handicaps people. I certainly am” in favor of smaller government.

When I asked where would the Tea Party come down in relation to a group of black college students protesting in front of a diner trying to get a hamburger, he said, “I don’t know. That’s a hypothetical. I can tell you this. The Tea Party has done a lot of things to call attention to where America is versus where it was in times past.”

And that’s good?

“Yes, it is,” he said with no hesitation. Henderson confirmed that he gets a lot of strange looks when people familiar with his past learn that he’s now a conservative Republican. “But I got a lot of strange looks when I was sitting at that lunch counter also.”

He added, “I don’t think Obama has done a good job, because he had a lot of opportunities to unify the races and I haven’t seen him do anything in regards to that. As far as the economy, the government has gotten bigger.”

As far as what many consider Obama’s biggest accomplishment – the Affordable Care Act – Henderson said, “Nowhere in the Constitution is health care listed as a right. It’s a service, not a right.”


In the often-hilarious movie “I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka,” the hero asks Kalinga, former leader of a 1960s militant group called “Brothers United Against the Man,” what happened to his revolutionary army.

“They got government jobs,” he lamented. “You know that government office building on 21st street? We went down to take it over, but they were hiring that day. The brothers walked in with guns, and came out with jobs.”

I’m guessing that’s what happened to some of these former world-changers – they went to raise hell but stayed to do well. The modern day version of that is – to paraphrase H.L. Mencken – nobody ever went broke criticizing President Obama.

Whether one sees the trans community’s struggle as a civil rights issue or not, the real question is how does it harm or detract from what we went through to have it classified as such? Is there a “civil rights” stipend we’re supposed to be receiving and that we’d have to share with another group if transgendered people are classified as one?

If so, somebody’s been cashing my check.