“Be Prepared” is the Boy Scout motto. Edgar Cunningham, Sr. was, of course, just that.
He stood proudly before his fellow Troop 12 Boy Scouts on June 6, 1926, and recited the Boy Scout Oath. Becoming the first African American Boy Scout to earn Scouting’s highest rank, he likely reflected on the principles that Eagle Scouts seek to live by: honesty, trustworthiness, bravery and kindness, to name a few.
There are records of an informally recognized African American Boy Scout troop dating back to 1911, five years before the organization established the first official African American troop in Louisville, Kentucky. The Ku Klux Klan and others complained and threatened the Boy Scouts of America with violence and financial starvation. But within ten years, there were nearly 5,000 black scouts, with all Southern communities but one accepting black troops.
Standing against the politically and financially powerful Klan and their cohorts was no small feat. But Scouting had made a commitment to prepare boys for manhood. And nowhere in the Scout Law or Oath had that commitment been limited based on race. In fact, Scout leaders knew that in order to face the violent racism of the day, black boys would need the preparation that only scouting could provide. Scouting could insure that black boys would in fact, be prepared.
Since then, the tradition of African American scouting has grown stronger. I was the first Eagle Scout for Troop 185 in New Orleans back in the early nineties. Over two decades, my Scoutmaster Garry Winchester has ushered hundreds of mostly African American boys through the ranks of scouting. He will graduate four new Eagle Scouts in a few short months. As flood water rose during Hurricane Katrina, Ashton Pruitt, an African American Scout in New Orleans Troop 35, used scouting survival skills to save the lives of his family members when he created makeshift life preservers and swam his entire family to safety, traversing nine feet of flood water.
Substitute race with sexual orientation and it turns out, today is not much different from the trying times that tested scouting nearly a century ago. Over the past several years the Boy Scouts of America have wrestled with the question of whether to allow gay members and leaders.
In January of this year, the Boy Scouts sent a bitter message of exclusion when it denied Ryan Andresen Scouting’s highest award because he is gay. The Boy Scouts overlooked Andresen’s years of hard work, service and dedication and denied him, arguing that by being gay, he had failed his “duty to God,” and therefore not lived up to the Scout Oath.
It was a low point for the more than century-old organization. In questioning Andresen’s fulfillment of his duty to God, the Boy Scouts had failed their duty to the boys they serve, trading inclusiveness for a policy of hate and short sightedness. Sir Badon Powell, the forefather of the scouting movement famously suggested, “We never fail when we try to do our duty, we always fail when we neglect to do it.” Scouting had neglected its gay members.
The Boy Scouts of America, though, are a resilient organization, learning and changing over time. It became clear that in these trying times, boys who are gay need the skills of citizenship, leadership, bravery, and integrity more than ever. As with African American boys in 20th century, Scouts who were gay needed to be prepared.
This week, Scouting was prepared to right its wrong, taking the historic step of voting to allow gay Scouts. As an Eagle Scout, I stand proud of the Boy Scouts of America for taking this brave step forward. But, while we celebrate this week’s victory, there is still more work to do.
In 2012, Tiger Cubs in Pack 109 were heartbroken when their den mother, Jennifer Tyrrell, was expelled from Scouting because she is a lesbian. Despite all of Scouting’s progress, on the matter of adult leadership, Scouting remained unprepared to act. I remain confident that this too shall be overcome. For that day, Scouting should get prepared.
James Perry is the executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, and the husband of host Melissa Harris-Perry–who addressed the Boy Scouts’ recent move in her Sunday Footnote. Watch it below.