Washington, DC Last night a broad civil rights coalition and a poetry festival collaborated on a celebration of the life and legacy of Bayard Rustin. The product of this partnership was "Voices Out Loud," an evening of spoken word, film, speeches, and music in celebration of civil rights activist and pioneer Bayard Rustin, whose 100th birthday is next month. The event, sponsored by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and Split This Rock Poetry Festival, also brought attention to increasing efforts in states across the country to restrict access to the vote.
"In many ways this is the perfect type of event to celebrate Bayard Rustin," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Education Fund. "Tonight was a testament to the creative spirit and commitment to coalition-building that characterized Rustin's activism, which are just as important now as they were in his time."
During his long activist career, Bayard Rustin was a central figure in some of America's most important civil rights campaigns. He served as an adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, advocating the nonviolent civil resistance strategies that would later form King's legacy. Most notably, Rustin served as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States.
Early in his life, Rustin openly acknowledged that he was gay, and that a closeted life was not an option for him. Despite the threat his openness posed to the movement at a time when the LGBT community was not widely accepted, he worked tirelessly to build coalitions that effectively advocated for civil and human rights legislation and policy that transformed America.
"I feel so inspired by Bayard Rustin," said Regie Cabico, a gay Philippine-American poet and actor, who performed a dramatic reading of a piece Rustin wrote about being arrested for refusing to give up his seat on a bus in Tennessee in 1942, more than a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. "He was such a multifaceted man, but he insisted on being himself, despite how uncomfortable he made some people. And in doing so, he made an incredible difference in our lives; in my life."
Rustin's creative nature seemed to find reflection in the entire program, which included not only Cabico's dramatic reading, but an original spoken word duet on the relationship between LGBT and Black civil rights performed by Chris August and Twain Dooley, a moving rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings" by young vocalist LaKisha Knight and clips from two Bennett Singer documentaries, "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin," and "Electoral Dysfunction," a new film on voting rights in America.
Singer, who introduced the clip of "Electoral Dysfunction," said, "Voting rights is something that Rustin fought very hard for, and if he was around, he'd still be at the forefront of the fight to ensure the widest possible access to voting."
"I found the program to be very moving and an affirmation of the transformative power of art," said Sarah Browning, executive director of Split This Rock Poetry Festival. "When you put art to work for social change, the result can be very powerful. This is why Split This Rock exists, and why I'm so happy to partner with The Education Fund on an event like this."
The event, in its celebration of Bayard Rustin, seemed also to be a reminder that the United States is still struggling with many of the issues he sought to change during his long career. "The work is far from over," said Walter Naegle, Rustin's long time partner, in his remarks introducing the "Brother Outsider" film clip. Each of the performances, in its own way, also conveyed the message that while much remains to be done, we have the tools for success, in the collaborative, principled approach of Bayard Rustin.
About Sponsoring Organizations
The Leadership Conference Education Fund ( www.civilrights.org ) builds public will for federal policies that promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. The Education Fund's campaigns empower and mobilize advocates around the country to push for progressive change in the United States.
Split This Rock Poetry Festival ( www.splitthisrock.org ) calls on poets of conscience to move to the center of public life to forge a visionary new arts movement for peace and justice. Split This Rock organizes biannual poetry festivals in Washington, DC, which feature readings by some of the most beloved poets of our time, workshops, panel discussions on poetry and social change, youth programming, films, parties, walking tours, and activismunique opportunities to hone activist skills while assessing and debating the public role of the poet and the poem in our society. Split This Rock's next festival takes place March 22-25, 2012.