Thursday, March 17, 2011

In Memoriam: Bayard Rustin

Routinely described as the architect of the American Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin is just as routinely denied his legacy today by the offspring of the Baptist ministers who were his lieutenants in this most noble undertaking because Rustin was openly - even unashamedly - gay at a time when he could still be jailed in many jurisdictions for being so...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1912, Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents; both were active in their community - Rustin's grandmother was a Quaker, his grandfather belonged to the A.M.E. Church - as a boy he was taken by them to meetings of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Not only would he have heard W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson speak there, but these legendary civil rights pioneers were also frequent guests in his grandparents' home.

Originally enrolled at Wilberforce University, Rustin's academic career took on a peripatetic quality following his work on behalf of the Scottsboro Nine in 1936; the outrageous bigotry directed at nine black men unfairly imprisoned lit the fuse of the civil rights movement in America - not to mention lighting a fire under one of its most tireless proponents - a fuse which would eventually detonate a generation later in another corner of Alabama during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The idea for a march on Washington first occurred during World War II, when the military was still officially segregated; with his typical aplomb President Franklin D. Roosevelt deftly defused that situation before it got out of hand by implementing Executive Order 8802, following which Rustin went to California to advocate on behalf of interned Japanese-Americans. Imprisoned for violating the Selective Service Act, he continued to agitate on behalf on civil rights while incarcerated.

As Rustin's star rose, questions about his sexuality and past affiliation with Communism began troubling the civil rights leadership, notably Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (D-NY), who forced Rustin's resignation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Rustin had founded with Martin Luther King, Jr.; undeterred, Rustin went to work on realizing his other dream. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 Dr. King made his famous I Have a Dream speech, but the dream had been Rustin's first, a fact too often overlooked today. In response to the March on Washington, President Lyndon Baines Johnson bullied the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the National Voting Rights Act (1965) through both houses of Congress.

Following King's assassination, Rustin eschewed the angry tactics (and blatant homophobia) of the Black Power movement by turning his attention to gay rights, stating: 'The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated.' Bayard Rustin died of complications following surgery in August 1987; he was survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years.

The memoir of record is Jervis Anderson's Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen; the PBS documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer - a clip of which can be seen here - draws heavily on this work. My thanks to for this additional information.

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