Bayard Rustin: Reviving the legacy of the black, gay architect of the March on Washington

I can distinctly remember in grade school, making paper cutouts for a class project when I first heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was around Martin Luther King Day and while we worked we listened, captivated by the powerful voice rising from the audio player. Afterward, we memorized portions of the speech, learned about the civil rights movement, passive resistance, and why it’s important to preserve the legacy of a man like Dr. King.

I wouldn’t learn about Bayard Rustin, the openly gay black activist and architect of the March on Washington where King delivered that famous speech, for years to come. And, when I did discover him, it wasn’t in a text book, which begs the question: why aren’t Rustin’s contributions more widely known, and how, furthermore, do we contextualize his legacy without this institutional recognition?

Rustin recognized by President Obama, in film

With the recent announcement that President Barrack Obama will be honoring the late Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom award– the highest honor awarded to civilians – there is optimism amongst social justice groups that Rustin’s contributions to history will, indeed, finally be recognized. In a press release, the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NJBC), Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, thanked President Obama for “lifting up this important piece of our nation’s history.”

Rustin’s legacy was also recently memorialized in the excellent documentary Brother Outsider, which NBJC plans to screen at a commemorative event in Washington D.C. in the coming days. The documentary, which chronicles Rustin’s life, his commitment to passive resistance and to social and economic justice, is also scheduled to return to public television in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28th, broadcasting at 7 p.m. as a part of the “America ReFramed” series on public television’s WORLD Channel.

Epitomizing his philosophy, the film opens with a clip of Rustin addressing a rapt crowd, declaring, “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable…our power is in our bodies…we need to put them in places so that the wheels can’t turn.”

Rustin’s voice was as strong as his conviction to do good for all mankind through such passive resistance, I learned from Brother Outsider. While grasping to understand this man of iconic stature, which civil rights history had almost forgotten, I sought additional modern voices who lent flesh and depth to Rustin’s burgeoning historical legacy.

Rustin’s humble beginnings lead to greatness

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912, in Brother Outsider we watch Rustin – an eloquent orator, musician, and skilled athlete – begin his lifelong fight for social justice, holding a sit-in in his hometown to integrate a restaurant, then rising to prominence as one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s advisers, and a leading strategist for the Civil Rights Movement.

We also glimpse the bigoted attitudes that have relegated him, as an openly gay black man, to the stage wings of history. Harvey Swados, American social critic and author, astutely observed in an essay for The Nation in 1963 that, “despite a driving mind, ruthless as a clenched fist, [he] was so unrecognized that reporters were always nudging each other to ask who was the graying guy with the moustache and how do you spell his name?”

Bennett Singer, one of the filmmakers behind Brother Outsider, spoke to theGrio about how he believes Rustin’s legacy fits in to the current political landscape, specifically at a time when debates over civil rights – from Stop and Frisk to the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – continue to dominate headlines. We are finally seeing racial and sexuality justice movements converging in the public’s mind.

Singer explains that he was, “most interested in how Rustin, as a central figure in the civil rights movement, came to be so comfortable with his sexuality.” The documentarian spent five years researching for the film.

“It’s incredible,” Singer told theGrio, “to think about someone growing up in the 1920s, and coming out to his grandmother in high school.”

Rustin: Rare out man in his generation

In the documentary we learn that Rustin’s grandmother was a Quaker, and a tolerant woman who strongly believed in justice.

“At one point,” Singer added, “he was asked what led to his activism. He said it actually didn’t come from being gay or black, but from being Quaker,” signifying that his disgust with segregation was due in part with its conflict with his core religious beliefs.

Singer began his research by digging through old FBI files the agency kept on the activist, which were preserved by his partner of the last ten years of his life, Walter Neagle.

“It was important to show that from the FBI’s perspective, Rustin was a subversive,” Singer says of a theme displayed in the documentary prominently. Voiceovers depicting the FBI files bookend many crucial parts of Rustin’s life in the film.

Ostracized from history for being gay

Singer goes on to explain that it is undoubtedly Rustin’s sexuality that stands out as one of the factors in his vilification, and the cause for his effective erasure from the popular discourse on the Civil Rights Movement.

After a very public arrest in 1953 for ”homosexual acts,” he served 60 days in jail in California, and was stigmatized for much of the remainder of his career, his reputation seen by some in the movement as a liability. The American poet and activist Amiri Barraka went so far as to refer to him in an open letter as “the big gun of white oppression” for collaborating with labor movements, and a “paid pervert.”