State of the Re:Union on NPR aired a wonderful segment today on the great yet often skipped-over Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. I had watched a fabulous documentary of Rustin called Brother Outsider in a most memorable class I took with Professor Elmo Terry-Morgan at Brown University called “Black Lavender: African American Gay and Lesbian Plays in the American Theater.” When I saw the film I was saddened, though not surprised, by how much I had heard about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how I had never even heard the name Bayard Rustin. This in itself is an important story of how intersecting identities play out in the context of social movements.
Rustin was the one to introduce King to the ideas of nonviolent social action. He was the architect of the March on Washington, and many other nonviolent events, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, Rustin was also a gay man. What would it mean for the Civil Rights Movement to have a known gay man seen as a lead organizer?
I highly recommend you listen to the radio segment, or watch the film, for the entire story of Rustin’s full and complex life. Below I will just discuss one moment of the radio segment, but please know this is just a moment, not the story of Rustin’s whole life or identity.
Today’s radio program told of one crucial moment that made way for Rustin to be able to continue his work planning the March on Washington faced with a major setback: “The fall of the meticulous planning Bayard is doing: there are some things he has no control over. Bayard had been very frightened or worried that the gay issue would come up before the march. And Strom Thurmond [bitter enemy of de-segregation] took the floor of the Senate, maybe three or four weeks before the date of the march…and rails against Bayard and the march. He calls Bayard a draft-dodger, a communist, a homosexual, and includes details of his arrest. Panic spreads through the march’s office….But A. Philip Randolph would not be coward. Randolph calls a press conference because they have to deal with it, and Randolph, who qA nothing if not extremely dignified said that ‘how dare a segregationist like Strom Thurmond condemn someone for immorality. We stand by Bayard Rustin. He is our organizer. He is Mr. March on Washington.’ And it’s that moment really that is the end of using the gay charge against Rustin effectively.
Activists disagree on whether the word “ally” is useful, or if it has been too watered down or become too problematic. Activists, especially in the context of organizing around rape and sexual assault, also have differing views on bystander intervention. However, if ever there was an ally move, what Randolph said at that press conference seems like the one. Standing by Rustin, having his back, and making it about the inhumane ideology of Thumond, instead of accusations against leader Rustin….to me it seemed like Randolph intervened in a way that not only saved the march and the movement, but saved Rustin from the pain and humiliation of yet another atrocious attack. Rustin went on to be the one to read the demands of the March on Washington after King’s I Have a Dream Speech.
Later in his life Rustin would go on to be active in the gay rights movement, and use his organizing skills there. Through a long-term relationship, he was able to build more positive connotations with his gay identity after being harassed by it for so long. There is so much to say about this individual. For now I would just like to honor how history (and uncovering parts of history that have been hidden) can demonstrate (despite all the terrible news we are inundated with constantly), distinct moments when good steps were taken in the name of justice.