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COMMENTARY: Why New York gay bashings mean America will better itself

In the last month I have had to double check whether or not I still live in New York, because the horrific headlines I have awoken to lately have been hard to reconcile with the image of the tolerant, open-minded mecca I have grown to love. Yet the heartbreaking stories of alleged hate crimes have been right here in the Big Apple, not in the deep South or Midwest or any other place where stereotypes dictating intolerance makes more sense. Not that intolerance ever makes any sense.

On Saturday Mark Carson was shot and killed in the West Village. It is alleged that his accused killer Elliott Morales harassed him about his sexual orientation before pulling the trigger. His death constitutes one of at least seven attacks on gay men in New York in recent weeks. As disturbing as Carson's killing and the other assaults are, I couldn't help but look for the silver lining amidst such tragedy, some sign that all will be okay. Then I realized I didn't have to look very far. All I had to do was look to history.

The violence we have seen in New York in the last month is not the first time we have seen a noticeable escalation of violence in a short amount of time directed at one group. According to Oklahoma State University lynching grew nationally every year from 1866 through the 1880s, peaking in 1892. Initially the violent practice was not reserved exclusively for blacks, but by 1900 as lynching decreased nationally, the number of black Americans targeted by the practice continued to increase.

The timing is not a coincidence. The Civil War ended in 1865, giving rise to Reconstruction, an era which coincided with increased rights and opportunities for black Americans, including the emergence of black Southern legislators for the first time in history. The loss of the war, combined with the loss of the Old South in which black Americans were property, fueled the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. With the Reconstruction era drawing to a close in the late 1870s violence would become one of the Klan's most potent weapons to try to halt our country's march toward racial progress, and ultimately to try to return the South to its pre-Civil War existence.

This would not be the last time concentrated violence would try to slow our country's advancement. The year 1963 saw a number of high profile racially charged murders. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated outside of his home in Mississippi, while four, young black girls were killed by a bomb placed in 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. The Ku Klux Klan had ties to both plots. 1964 saw even more deaths with the murders of three civil rights workers at the hands of the Klan. (Their story would inspire the film "Mississippi Burning.")

These murders have something in common, namely that they all occurred at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, specifically at the pivotal moment when our nation collectively began its transition from a country of legalized segregation to the nation we are today governed by a biracial president and with multiracial families rapidly growing. (It is worth noting that the election of the first black president is credited with sparking an increased interest in hate groups not seen in decades.)

Like lynching last century, the death of Mark Carson and attacks on other gay Americans represent a similar acknowledgment that our country is advancing on the issue of LGBT rights and some people are doing everything they can to stop it. But as history has shown us, they can't. Once the march towards equality has begun, you can't ever put the genie back in the bottle again. You may be able to slow things a bit, but eventually equal rights will win out.

Which brings me to the other element of hope that all of us must cling to amidst the rising fear and hopelessness of recent days. The deaths of Medgar Evers, the civil rights workers, the four little girls and many others, are credited with helping to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There were elected officials and other Americans who until then had successfully operated under the worldview that the issue of civil rights didn't affect them so why should they care. But seeing innocent people killed made them care.

I believe Mark Carson's death will have the same impact. His murder and the ongoing violence in New York will force much needed conversation and legislation regarding issues like employment discrimination based on sexual orientation (an issue largely overshadowed by the issue of same-sex marriage, in media, but one that arguably has a larger impact on the entire LGBT community, particularly those who are poor or of color). Much like Matthew Shepard's death in 1998, the recent violence will also hopefully inspire some people who have been on the fence, and believe that LGBT rights is not their problem, to understand that regardless of your skin color, or sexual orientation, the fight for equal rights matters to all of us, or at least it should. Because any assault on an American for being who he is is an assault on all of us.

Keli Goff is a Special Correspondent for The Root and the author of The GQ Candidate.

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