Ernestine Eckstein had a profound impact on the homophile movement almost immediately upon her arrival in New York City in 1963, and her impact ultimately changed the course of American queer history.
As a veteran of the increasingly successful direct-action wing of the Black Civil Rights Movement, and as an officer of the New York chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, Ernestine played a major role in the 1965 debate within the homophile movement regarding the proper approach to take when lobbying for civil rights.
The "old guard", on the one hand, advocated continuing to pursue rights through discreet meetings with medical professionals and certain local officials; the "new guard", including Ernestine, on the other hand, wanted to take the movement directly to the people by demonstrating and, ultimately, forcing the federal government to pay attention.
Ernestine understood the importance of direct action before almost anyone else. "Picketing I regard as almost a conservative act now," she said in 1966. "The homosexual has to call attention to the fact that he's been unjustly acted upon. This is what the Negro did."
Thus, Ernestine played an instrumental role in the movement's tactical shift toward direct action, and she did so as a Black woman within a power structure dominated almost entirely by white males. Within a few years, however, Ernestine left New York for California, where she continued her life as an activist, including in groups like Black Women Organized for Action.
Ernestine Eckstein died at fifty-one.