At a time when much of the media is focusing on the opening of the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and at the same time memorializing the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—which has become simply the frame for his now iconic "I Have a Dream Speech"—we need to look behind the window dressing and remember parts of the picture that still remain in the shadows. We need to understand that history is not quite as simplistic as what gets presented for easy public consumption, as what makes nice and neat packages to be trotted out on anniversaries, or during Black History months or moments.
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.
The legacy of "are you now or have you ever been" is still with us. Just look at the more recent attacks on Van Jones.
The man who not only organized the March on Washington—at the behest of MLK and A. Phillip Randolph—had the courage to step up to the plate and do what needed to be done, even after MLK had distanced himself and bent to the will of critics like Roy Wilkins; MLK did nothing to push back against the vicious homophobic attacks against Rustin initiated by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. working in collusion with J. Edgar Hoover.
Not a pretty segment of history. History has ugly edges and there's no point trying to get around them. Better to learn from them. And so for me, Bayard Rustin's life and story is important for all of us, to gain a more realistic perspective on not just the past, but on how we need to move forward.
The history we need to know is already written, and is available in text and on video.
I suggest that if you are interested you get your hands on this video.
It tells his history as a black gay man fighting for justice: Brother Outsider
Rustin was born in 1912 into a Pennsylvania Quaker family steeped in ideas of social justice and non-violence. He moved to Harlem during the socially and culturally tumultuous 1930s and, after a brief flirtation with the Communist Party found a more congenial home in A.J. Muste’s pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. While there, he served prison terms for resisting the draft during World War II and later for integrating interstate buses. When A. Philip Randolph, aging head of the Black labor movement, turned to the fellowship for tactical help, Rustin worked closely with him and developed a belief that the labor movement offered the best hope for Black advancement.
Then in 1953, Rustin was arrested during a casual homosexual encounter. A.J. Muste forced him out of the fellowship. When the Montgomery bus boycott was launched, he went to Alabama in 1956 and became a mentor in non-violence to the 26-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though Rustin would advise the younger civil rights leader until his assassination in 1968, King broke publicly with Rustin in 1960, when Representative Adam Clayton Powell threatened King over the issue of Rustin’s homosexuality.
Rustin's tenure as a member of the CPUSA was not a long one; it lasted about five years.
Rustin moved to Harlem and began studying at New York City College. He soon became involved in the campaign to free the nine African Americans that had been falsely convicted for raping two white women on a train. Known as the Scottsboro Case, Rustin was radicalized by what he believed was an obvious case of white racism. It was at this time (1936) that Rustin joined the American Communist Party. As Rustin later pointed out, "the communists were passionately involved in the civil rights movement so they were ready-made for me."
Rustin had a fine voice and sung in local folk clubs with Josh White. In September, 1939, Rustin was recruited by Leonard De Paur to appear with Paul Robeson in the Broadway musical, John Henry. However, the show was not a success and closed after a fortnight.
In 1941 Rustin met the African American trade union leader, Philip Randolph. A member of the Socialist Party, Randolph was a strong opponent of communism and as a result of his influence, Ruskin left the American Communist Party in June, 1941.
He was no different than many other black activists of his time in that respect, nor was he the only member of the broader civil rights movement to have a CP history. Take for example, Jack O'Dell:
Jack O’Dell was a union organizer, a civil rights leader, and a member of the Communist Party. His political consciousness formed in the 1940’s, when the African-American community became more assertive in their efforts to improve conditions and expand civil rights. Like many blacks, including one of his role models, Paul Robeson, O’Dell was drawn to the Communist Party because of their staunch stand against racism and segregation. During the 1940’s, O’Dell found a welcoming environment in the National Maritime Union. Later, he worked for the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Counsel (SCLC) office in New York, before becoming SCLC’s voter registration director in seven southern states.
O'Dell, who now lives in Canada has talked about that period:
I had three role models as men in my upbringing my grandfather, John O’Dell, who was a janitor in the public library. He got up every morning at 6:30 and went to work. I learned my work habits from him. My second role model was my father, Jack O’Dell. I liked just the way he was as a human being. I wanted to be like him in the sense of, I don’t know how to describe it, just a love for my father — many sides to him. And the third role model was Paul Robeson. When I was getting ready to go away to college my mother told me, “Honey, if you decide to join a fraternity, join the Alphas.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because Paul Robeson’s there. (chuckles) I said, ”Okay." You know? That didn’t mean anything to me but it still stuck with me. I had heard Paul Robeson was a Communist. I had heard a lot about Paul Robeson. He sang down at Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans my sophomore year and I went to the concert. He sang songs from China, the Soviet Union, Negro spirituals; had a great presence. But I was most impressed when, after the concert, he spent an hour signing autographs for students and asking them where they were in school ad what you were doing, and so forth, and I was in that line. So Paul Robeson became a political model. I liked his militancy, I liked his stance, I liked his integrity and he was a powerful symbol. I began to follow his career more closely because, as I said, he was a role model for manhood,—black manhood. So it was from the larger progressive movement that I as a seaman got an interpretation of what was going on. It wasn’t just an NMU thing. It wasn’t just a CIO thing. There were lynchings going on in the south of veterans returning from World War II. Segregation was still up. What had begun to emerge in the country was an assault on racism coming out of World War II by the NAACP and Unions. And the segregationists defended segregation by saying they weren’t against blacks —they weren’t against equal rights for blacks —they were against communism. But their interpretation of Communist was anybody who supported the right of blacks to have civil rights.
While most blacks didn’t join the Communist Party, they understood that the Communists were the fighters. And they knew individual Communists who were fighters, and they were black and white and Latino, and so forth. And with this anti-Communism that now was becoming the state religion and with the persecution of the Communists, I just said, well to show where I’m at I’ll join the communists. I’ll join the Communist Party. And I did, and I remained an active member of the Party for about seven years.
I was first and foremost a person with the African-American experience. I knew living in the north and I knew living in the south and I knew the contradiction that this country was living with great hypocrisy. Secondly, I was viewing this as a trade Unionist because militancy of the trade Union movement appealed to me. I knew you had to fight and you had to fight in an organized way and you had to fight with a weapon. And for me the weapon was the Union. So the fight to keep the Union true to the course that it had set for itself was of great priority. Thirdly, I found within the Union a left called Communists and other variations of that which I respected. I was not, shall we say, inexorably attracted to them for any particular reason except that I saw the role they played in the Union and that there would not have been a good NMU without their participation, from what I could see.
Like Rustin, O'Dell was also pressured to keep a low profile.
Because of O'Dell's past involvement with the Communist Party, Dr. King received pressure from many liberal leaders—including the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert—to distance himself from O'Dell. After conferring with King, O'Dell decided to accept a less prominent post within the movement in order not to alienate important allies of the Civil Rights struggle; nevertheless, he continued to play a decisive role in the SCLC, as well as in King's move towards the political left towards the end of his life.
John D'Emilio is the author of Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.
D'Emilio is a professor of history and of gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In Bayard Rustin in Chicago, 1951, D'Emilio wrote:
Rustin's sexuality became news in Chicago. In January 1953, Rustin and two other men were arrested at night in a parked car on a deserted street in downtown Pasadena. Rustin served sixty days in jail on charges of lewd vagrancy. The Chicago Tribune ran a story on the second page with the headline “Morals Charge Jails Booster of World Peace.” It mentioned that, in November, Rustin had spoken in Chicago before the “Young Men's Luncheon Group” of the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations. The detail preyed upon fears that homosexual corrupt youth. The Tribune ran another article the next day: “Negro Lecturer Sentenced on Morals Charge.” A few days later, the Chicago Defender, an African American paper with a national circulation, carried a front-page headline: “Bayard Rustin Jailed on Morals Charge.” The article included this statement: “Sexual deviates are often referred to as “queers.'”
Miraculously, Rustin was able to salvage his career as a Gandhian activist. He continued his work and his travels, including repeated trips to Chicago. The lengthiest of these later trips came in 1966, when the civil rights leadership in Chicago invited Dr. King to help them organize demonstrations against segregated housing. The protests were met with lots of violence from whites, and the events were front-page news for weeks. Rustin was in Chicago often that year, working with King and with local leaders. Unlike in 1951, when his sexuality remained a matter of silent speculation, now his gay identity was very public. In the years after the Pasadena arrest, as he traveled around the country on lecture tours, right-wing organizations trotted out his conviction on sex charges. In 1963, two weeks before the March on Washington, a segregationist Senator denounced him in Congress and put information about his arrest into the Congressional Record. Rustin never let these attacks stop him. He kept marching, he kept organizing, he kept speaking out for peace, racial equality, and economic justice. His work kept winning the respect of the many activists who encountered him, even as the gay label trailed him.
In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell, the minister-congressman from Harlem, threatened to float a rumor that King was one of Rustin’s lovers if King didn’t exile him from his inner circle. King pushed him away, reluctantly, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Bayard had a lot of baggage — communist youth member, conscientious objector,” says Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life. “But being gay was the one thing that was still unforgivable to a lot of civil rights leaders.”
Rustin didn't just get arrested for his sexual orientation. He also did time in Lewisburg as a conscientious objector.
From 1944 to 1946, Rustin was imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, where he organized protests against segregated dining facilities. During his incarceration, Rustin also organized FOR's Free India Committee. After his release from prison, he was frequently arrested for protesting against British colonial rule in India and Africa.
After a federal court sentenced him to three years in prison for failing to report for his Selective Service physical exam-most COs received a sentence of one year and a day- Bayard Rustin was incarcerated in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. There, his protests against racial segregation resulted in his transfer to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he served out the remainder of his time.
He also spent time on a chain gang and wrote about his experience in "Twenty-Two Days on a chain gang".
Bayard Rustin introduces this personal account as follows: “In 1947, after repeated reports that the various states were ignoring the Morgan decision, the Fellowship of Reconciliation set out to discover the degree to which such illegal separation patterns were enforced. In what has since become known as the Journey of Reconciliation, sixteen white and Negro young men, in groups ranging from two to four, traveled through North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee making test cases. It was on one of these cases that I was arrested. Finally, after the North Carolina supreme court upheld my thirty-day sentence, I surrendered and spent twenty-two days at Roxboro.
Lest you think this was not a life-threatening experience, his tale is harrowing, as this segment about the fate of one chain-mate, as stated by another inmate attests:
“Dat was nothin’, really,” he said. “Cap’n might have done them up like the Durham police did that old man over there.” He pointed to a small, thin man in his middle fifties, dragging himself slowly toward the washroom. His head was covered with bandages and one eye was discolored and bruised. “Dad,” as the men already were calling him, had come up from the country to Durham a few days before for a holiday. He had got drunk, and when the police tried to arrest him he had resisted, and they had beaten him with blackjacks. After three days in jail he was sentenced to Roxboro. When he got to the prison camp he complained that he was ill, but nonetheless was ordered to go out on the job. After working an hour, Dad told the walking boss that he was too sick to continue and asked if he could be brought in. He was brought in and the doctor summoned, but he had no temperature and the doctor pronounced him able to work. When he refused to go back to his pick and shovel he was ordered “hung on the bars” for seventy-two hours.
When a man is hung on the bars he is stood up facing his cell, with his arms chained to the vertical bars, until he is released (except for being unchained periodically to go to the toilet). After a few hours, his feet and often the glands in his groin begin to swell. If he attempts to sleep, his head falls back with a snap, or falls forward into the bars, cutting and bruising his face. (Easy Life told me how Purple had been chained up once and gone mad, so that he began to bang his head vigorously against the bars. Finally the night guard, fearing he would kill himself, unchained him.)
The old man didn’t bang his head. He simply got weaker and weaker, and his feet swelled larger and larger, until the guard became alarmed, cut the old man down, and carried him back to bed. The next day the old man was ordered out to work again, but after he had worked a few minutes he collapsed and was brought back. This time the doctor permitted him to be excused from work for a week. At the end of the week, when Dad came back to work, he was still very weak and tired but was expected to keep up the same rate of work as the other members of the crew.
One of the other aspects of Rustin's life I have always found of interest was his close working relationship to another organizer who also gets few props for her pivotal role in the struggle—Ella Baker.
After the Montgomery bus boycott started in December 1955, Baker joined with activists Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison to form the group In Friendship, which channeled Northern resources to the Southern civil rights movement. After the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957 to continue the struggle started in Montgomery, Rustin and Levison persuaded SCLC's new president, Martin Luther King Jr., to hire Baker as SCLC's first staff member. Baker went to Atlanta to put together the new organization and its first projects. She started literally from scratch, finding and furnishing her own office. However, Baker did not like King, and he in turn did not want a woman running SCLC. She helped select SCLC's first executive director and returned to New York.
Under various umbrellas, Baker continued her organizing activities throughout the South, and in the spring of 1960 became godmother to still another organization--the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Seeing potential in the student sit-ins against segregation that proliferated throughout the South that spring, Baker brought the young protesters to a conference at Shaw University. For the rest of SNCC's life, through many changes in leadership and direction, she was its adviser and nurturer. It was at her urging that SNCC concentrated on organizing in the small towns of the South and tried to reach decisions through discussion and consensus.
Baker, though having worked closely with Rustin for many years (including organizing with him the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage that brought thousands of protestors to Washington, D.C to pressure President Eisenhower to enforce Brown vs the Board of Education) did not go to the March on Washington.
When the march was planned, no woman was asked to speak...Since Ella Baker had angered SCLC over its plan to take over SNCC, she was not invited to speak. SNCC’s message at the march was to be more militant than what the organizers wanted. SNCC member John Lewis, who later became a Congressman from Georgia, was to speak and was asked to “tone down” his language, something if Ella Baker were around, he would not have been asked to do. However, to promote a position of unity, John Lewis with the help of James Forman, another SNCC leader, rewrote their remarks.
Ironically, a Baker did speak at the march, but it was not Ella, the matriarch of the progressive sector. The only woman to speak was Josephine Baker. To be gay or female in those movement days guaranteed that you would not be driving the freedom bus, or even riding in the front seat.
Thanks to the efforts of young LGBT people of color, Rustin's legacy is now being acknowledged. Each year in Atlanta, for the past 10 years, the Bayard Rustin-Audre Lorde Breakfast is held on MLK Day.
Today, I ask that we also honor his legacy.
He may have been "brother outsider" back then, but now we should simply remember him as Brother Bayard.