When civil rights leader and organizer Bayard Rustin died in 1987, his New York Times obituary referred to his partner Walter Naegle as his adopted son.
“It hurt. It hurt a bit,” Naegle told theGrio about this characterization of their bond. “At the same time I understood that it was the policy at the time. And it was the reality. Bayard did adopt me legally. We were not able to get married at that time, of course. He wanted to protect my legal interests, so we went through the process of legal adoption.”
The couple, which had been together for ten years at the time of Rustin’s death, could not enjoy the right of marriage equality, now available in New York State.
Setting history right regarding Rustin
The couple met in Times Square in 1977 when Naegle was 27 and Rustin was 65. Naegle describes himself as an old soul, and said Rustin was eternally young. Together, Naegle said, they met at the spiritual age of 40.
Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, had always been openly gay in his private and professional spheres, but it would be several years before his public image came to reflect the full reality of the renaissance man.
Years after the death of his partner, Nagle has remained the keeper of his flame, working to ensure that Rustin’s memory is properly preserved.
Working as the head of the Bayard Rustin Fund to promote Rustin’s legacy, Naegle has devoted himself to educating people about Rustin’s pivotal role as a civil rights strategist, ensuring that this truth is absorbed into the official annals of history.
Remembering Rustin as a great vocalist, musician and art lover, in addition to being a man who engaged in 50 years of activism, Naegle mused peacefully on his longtime companion. Between organizing protests and ceaselessly fighting for the advancement of human rights, Rustin collected European religious art, pieces from his travels in Africa, and items bought and donated from refugee camps he had visited as a humanitarian.
According to Naegle, Rustin loved these objects because they were totems to how people expressed themselves, a living testament to their feelings.
“Bayard was somebody who grew up at time when there were teachers teaching literature and fine art in the public school system,” Naegle said. “He was very well-rounded in the arts and in the sciences. That is something he carried with him throughout his life.”
Establishing a legacy
Rustin’s memory and legacy are being revived now through renewed interest in his contributions. Just as gay marriage has passed in New York State and other locales, the public’s growth towards greater fairness has paralleled the realization that Rustin’s work can no longer be ignored.
Many say he was often pushed aside by other civil rights leaders and left out of historical accounts of their golden era because he was gay. Things have changed. Rustin has even been recognized by President Obama, who will posthumously award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year for his tremendous service.
“Actually it is a sign of how far society has evolved in the decades since Rustin operated as an openly black, gay male leader during the Civil Rights Movement,” Naegle said.