March 17, 2012
By Scottie Thomaston
Bayard Rustin was born 100 years ago today. As one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he is known especially for organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs And Freedom:
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will be forever known as the day that ensured the success of the civil rights movement and launched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the highest pantheon of American champions. Next week, on the 48th anniversary of the march, King will be anointed into that ultra-selective fraternity of national leaders memorialized on the Mall.
But for hundreds of civil rights veterans, Aug. 28 will also always be Bayard’s Day, the crowning achievement of one of the movement’s most effective, and unconventional, activists.
“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” says Norton. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”
At the march, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the speech “Normalcy Never Again”; it is now called the “I Have a Dream” speech, after he broke from his previously written words to talk about his vision of an anti-racist future. He wanted to approach the movement in a non-violent way, as he said, and build lasting coalitions between communities:
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
This approach and rhetoric was directly influenced by Rustin:
Rustin was more responsible than anyone for making Gandhi’s philosophy a central feature of the civil rights movement. In the 1940s he and others experimented with nonviolent direct action as a means of challenging racial injustice, both in the North and the South. When a bus boycott began in Montgomery, Ala. in 1955, Rustin was perhaps the most experienced Gandhian activist in the U.S. He brought his knowledge to Alabama, became mentor to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and strategized Dr. King’s emergence as a national leader.
Later, when civil rights leaders realized that the time was right for a national march on Washington, who better to organize it than this master of protest? With just seven weeks lead time, Rustin coordinated an effort that brought 200,000 people to the nation’s capital, where they assembled peaceably and heard what became one of the iconic speeches of the 20th century. The press referred to Rustin as “Mr. March on Washington.”
Rustin had complicated history within the movement for several reasons:
She was a march volunteer. The boss was Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief organizer and the man widely viewed as the only civil rights activist capable of pulling off a protest of such unprecedented scale.
And he was gay. Openly gay. That year again? 1963.
“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” says Norton, now the District’s nonvoting delegate to Congress.
In fact, though, there were several other factors at play, and they tell an interesting story about the divisions between race, class, and sexual orientation. Rustin was not simply an activist for the Black community, or simply a civil rights leader (a distinction which, in itself, makes him worthy of remembering); he did a lot more, and yet his name is not as well-known:
Rustin’s reach extended beyond the fight for racial justice. A Quaker and a pacifist for half a century, he played a key role in mobilizing popular protest against the nuclear arms race. At the height of the Cold War, when sirens blared, all Americans were supposed to duck for cover. Rustin and a few other comrades said, “This is insane,” and they sat instead in City Hall Park in New York. Indicted and found guilty, they did it again, and again, until many thousands of Americans followed their lead. Rustin organized protests against nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert, the south Pacific, and the Sahara. Soon, the nuclear powers abandoned atmospheric testing.
Rustin’s list of achievements is long. So why don’t most Americans know about him? Rustin had three strikes against him. In the 1930s he had been a Communist, and in J. Edgar Hoover’s America, that meant you were always a danger to the nation. In the 1940s he had been what some might call a “draft dodger.” He served two years in federal prison rather than fight in World War II, a stance that did not go down well with American Legions and other patriots during the Cold War. And, through all these decades, an era I describe to my students as “the worst time to be queer,” he was a gay man who refused to play it straight. At a time when every state had sodomy laws, when the federal government banned the employment of all homosexuals, and when police across America felt authorized to walk into gay bars and arrest everyone who was there, Rustin’s sexuality brought him no end of trouble. Two weeks before the March on Washington, South Carolina’s segregationist Senator, Strom Thurmond, read into the Congressional Record evidence of Rustin’s “sex perversion.”
We tend to whitewash, simplify, and ‘straighten-out’ history for mass consumption and that leaves a lot of important details and nuances out of the picture. It obscures the lessons we can and should be learning from the people who came before us. Last year, Denise Oliver-Velez wrote about the whitewashing of the movement and the absence of acknowledgement of Rustin’s place in history:
History, whitewashed or otherwise, is never simple, and in many cases is uncomfortable for those unwilling to view the portions excised from the sanctioned texts.
For many liberals, it is easier to accept a version with few contradictory elements. For progressives, it is often easier to embrace yet another more “leftist” version. For many, it has become too easy to simply quote Martin, or honor the March and the civil rights movement without examining the multiple perspectives that it encompassed and the often adversarial factions within it.
To be honest, my own view of that part of history has a bias that probably leans more toward the perspectives of members of SNCC, or members of the Communist Party, or the point of view of Malcolm X and his heirs in the Black Panther Party. But even with my bias, I have no problem embracing the legacy of Bayard Rustin, a man I both agreed with strongly, and later fought against in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville Brooklyn community control of schools issue that led to a massive teachers strike.
He will forever be, in my opinion, one of the most important black leader/organizers of our age, despite my opposing viewpoints on individual positions he held during his lifetime.
Bayard Rustin, even in today’s more liberal climate than those he organized in for so many long years, isn’t given his due for two main reasons: he had been a member of the Communist Party and he was gay. Efforts were made to diminish his prominence and to even expel him from movement leadership positions for those two reasons.
Twenty years later, after an attempt to keep gay and lesbian rights groups from speaking at the remembrance of the March on Washington, Audre Lorde spoke about building bridges between communities:
As noted above, according to Rev. Troy Perry in the book “Profiles in Gay and Lesbian Courage,” in 1983, Congressman Walter Fauntroy, a Baptist pastor and one of the organizers of the Washington March marking the 20th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, fought against any gay inclusion. Even event committee leader Coretta Scott King was not yet ready to embrace gay equality at that point, for fear it would alienate too many among black clergy. It took a sit-in and arrests in Fauntroy’s office, threats of a boycott by N.O.W. and the Quakers, and an after-midnight, nearly three-hour conference call with Mrs. King and committee members in which her husband’s own words on taking moral stands against prevailing majority opinion were used by National Coalition of Black Gays director Gil Gilberto and NG[L]TF director Ginny Apuzzo to try to get her and others to change their minds.
They succeeded, and a press conference hours later announced that gays would be included. Lesbian poet Audre Lorde was our community’s representative, speaking to the huge march crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Sadly, while Mrs. King thanked Lorde for being there shortly before she spoke, and became one of our great individual champions, and gay speakers were warmly welcomed at the 30th and 40th anniversary events, the grand new coalition between the black civil rights movement and the gay rights movement that Lorde spoke so affirmatively of on that day has yet to happen over a quarter of a century later.
And it’s worth making efforts to correct this. We should all reconsider the way we think about history and the way we divide ourselves. We all want the same things:
In many ways, there could not be a better time to reflect on what his life can teach us. In this last decade, our national leaders have assured us that the surest route to safety and security and freedom and justice is through war. Mass incarceration and restrictive voter registration laws are undoing many of the gains of the civil rights movement. The gap between the rich and the rest is greater than ever. Our national government seems to exist only to serve the wealthy. Every bit of good that government has done in the last century is being carefully and methodically dismantled.
Rustin believed that war would never bring peace and that violence would never bring justice. He believed that the call for justice was so imperative that it was not just up to the oppressed to respond. He believed democracy would never be meaningful until everyone shared in society’s wealth and there was economic security for all. And he believed that no matter how grim the political times, we each had the power to create hope every day by our actions in the world.
Ben Jealous of the NAACP said of Rustin:
[S]omebody once said to me, I didn’t march in the ’60′s so that men could sleep together. And I was like, well, that’s all right because Bayard Rustin had that held down. You know, the man who planned the march on Washington was gay, was known to be gay, and that was okay with Dr. King, it was okay with Julian Bond and John Lewis then, and it’s okay now. Our only regrets about Bayard Rustin are that he still isn’t with us planning marches.
Jealous explains that there are several issues we’re with each other on, even if it’s for different reasons. We largely have the same goals, and we can work toward getting things done:
So, I think we have to start from the premise that gay people are a part of the NAACP. They’ve been a part of the social justice movement. The gay black people in particular live both of those identities, as we all live multiple identities. You know.
The NAACP, for that reason has always been quick to recognize across a whole range of issues that common interests as black people, as black people, or as multiple identities as black people, and gay people as gay people and there are multiple shades and colors. I mean, for instance, issues of police brutality, employment discrimination, hate crimes. We have been there side by side, fighting on again and again. We just had a big victory, the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd bill, but the NAACP bought ads in Texas to promote and really to beat up on the then-Governor, about-to-become-President Bush, for his lack of support 10 years ago. And we’re out there now in the employment non-discrimination act. And we’re out there now in Uganda. We hate the death penalty because it’s the death penalty, but we also, we hate it all the more when you say that you want to make being a member of a minority group, any minority group the reason that you get the death penalty. And that’s what they’re trying to do in Uganda. They’re trying to actually make the being gay a crime punishable by death.
The NAACP is currently closely allied with Protect All Families in North Carolina, working to defeat the anti-gay amendment there.
In honor of Rustin’s aspirations and his successes achieving justice for all people, we should keep fighting together against injustices wherever we see them happening.