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Bayard Rustin: A complex legacy
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2012-03-28

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Bayard Rustin (right) with Martin Luther King Jr. Photo courtesy of Bennett Singer


The gay civil-rights activist Bayard Rustin was born a hundred years ago, on March 17, 1912. Considered the key organizer of the historical 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was involved in movements for racial and economic justice till his death in 1987. Yet, he is relatively unknown today and often deliberately stayed in the background, in large part because public knowledge about his identity as a gay man added to his vulnerability as an outspoken civil-rights activist.

In 1953, Rustin was arrested on a "morals" charge for sex in a car with two men. The arrest would shadow his life and activism for years. When he was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., the two men planned a demonstration at the 1960 Los Angeles Democratic National Convention. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell got King to cancel the action, threatening to reveal that King and Rustin were having an affair. King, fearing the worst, let Rustin go, even though there was no truth behind the threat. In such ways, Rustin's sexual identity would overcast his work.

In recent years, Rustin has been the subject of extensive biographical works. Among these is the 2003 book, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, by John D'Emilio, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The 2003 film, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, co-directed by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer continues to make the rounds, especially this year. ( It is running at the Chicago Cultural Center March 28. )

I Must Resist: The Life and Letters of Bayard Rustin—a new book and collection of correspondence from Rustin as well as letters about him, including those from FBI files—shows a more personal side of the activist. ( Learn more at www.citylights.com/book/ . )

Rustin died in 1987. He was still active in various social-justice struggles, and made visits to refugee camps in Thailand as part of the International Rescue Committee. He went as part of a high-power delegation that also included Liv Ullman, Elie Weisel and Joan Baez. If he were alive today, Rustin would most likely be among the firmament of celebrity activists. Yet, in an age of Kardashians where celebrity is as fleeting as the scant snow of this year's Chicago winter, many might well wonder who Liv Ullman is. And, according to D'Emilio, the general response of most people "outside a small circle" to any mention of Rustin's name is, "Bayard, who?"

D'Emilio, in a phone interview, described Rustin's life as one "that raises almost any question you might ask about how to change society, and how to bring about social and economic justice." He added that even if people did not agree with all of Rustin's choices, "there is hardly any question he did not grapple with; his life is a textbook for how we build movements and bring about change."

Indeed, it is likely that some on the left might find it difficult to reconcile themselves to aspects of his politics. There was, for instance, his staunch support for Israel and condemnation of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In a 1974 letter to the president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, he wrote about UN delegates applauding Yassir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization: "I'm sure you are as disturbed as I am about the reception accorded the Palestinian Liberation Organization by the United Nations..the overwhelming majority of black Americans are deeply outraged by the slaughter of children and innocent civilians during terrorist raids."

However, Rustin would also be uncompromising in advocating for labor rights. In 1980, Yeshiva University voted to give him an honorary degree. The university had supported a ruling that faculty members at private colleges and universities, such as Yeshiva, could not organize. Writing to the university's president, Norman Lamm, Rustin declined the honor, stating that Yeshiva's decision to not support collective bargaining, "a principle which I hold dear," meant that it would be "hypocritical" for him to accept the degree.

Reading the letters, it becomes clear that Rustin did not live his life according to some master template which required him to always respond in exactly the same way to every situation. Instead, he was constantly thinking through his support for his own work and that of others according to his basic tenets. As a staunch supporter of Israel and as someone who believed in the links between the struggles of the African-American and Jewish communities, rejecting the honorary degree had to be painful for him.

Rustin brought that same thoughtfulness to his personal life and integrated his politics into whatever was happening to him at the time. In 1944, he was jailed in a maximum-security prison in Ashland, Ky., as a conscientous objector. He promptly set about organizing, with other prisoners, against segregation within the prison. He took it upon himself to write long letters to the warden, R.P. Hagerman, about racial injustice. While there, he also corresponded with his lover, David Platt.

The letters to Platt are heavily coded, and they combine a "brotherly" tenderness with well-considered reflections on the politics of resistance to war, as well as thoughts about his fellow prisoners. A visit from Platt apparently prompted some speculation about their relationship amongst the others, and it appears that he may not have shirked from talking to them: "The fellows ... were concerned on Thursday to know who you were. That, too, afforded an opportunity."

Rustin's career, after his stint in prison, never really dimmed: He would go on to key positions in organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and become an adviser to King. However, he would always be haunted by the specter of what happened in 1953.

According to D'Emilio, Rustin had three big strikes against him: that he identified as a Communist in the 1930s, and "that fact trailed him forever; it made him potentially a disability and cast him as disloyal." He was seen as a draft dodger for choosing to go to jail rather than join the war effort. Compounding all this was that he was "queer in an era when it was impossible to be known as gay, lesbian or anything else." Rustin's response to being outed was not to cover himself with the semblance of a heterosexual life but to continue living as gay man, and he would spend many years working in movements in ways that "did not call attention to himself."

There is, in the emerging and more public narrative about him, a tendency to describe Rustin as an "out gay man." But the truth is more complex. In 1986, the writer Joseph Beam invited Rustin to contribute to what would become a key work, In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Rustin's response was thoughtful and clear: "I was not involved in the struggle for gay rights as a youth. ... I did not 'come out of the closet' voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. ... I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter. As such, it has not been a factor which has greatly influenced my role as an activist."

This might come as a surprise to many who think of Rustin as a pure gay icon or who might wonder about the fact that his sexuality in fact often impinged upon his political life. Indeed, that same year, Rustin would write to Ed Koch, then-mayor of New York City, to provide testimony about a gay-rights bill: "No group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment."

In all this, it seems impossible to paint Rustin as an unalloyed gay icon who stood for a particular gay-rights movement. Rather, it seems more likely that his continuing thoughts on gay issues mark something that may be lost in the current debates around marriage or "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," regardless of positions, within the LGBTQ community: that reconciling the private with the public is not as easy as a simple emergence from the closet into freedom.

Rustin's complicated consideration of his own "outing" also suggests that the closet is not an a historical entity, like some version of the Wardrobe in C.S Lewis's classic, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, re-emerging at will in different time periods as always the same. His experience with being a gay man in the 1950s and 1960s was markedly different from that in the later decades, but he never saw himself as someone who "came out of the closet" and yet, simultaneously, never disavowed his sexual identity.

Today, Rustin's legacy is in the process of being recovered and celebrated. In Chicago, The Legacy Project brought Bennett Singer to town for a March 28 screening of the film he co-directed with Nancy Kates, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. Rustin's plaque is expected to be among those unveiled at the dedication of the Project's Legacy Walk Oct. 11 ( National Coming-Out Day ) .

The upcoming Bayard Rustin Centennial Conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ) aims to bring about a two-day inter-generational conversation about Rustin life and legacy in a way that connects his life and legacy with activist work. Speaking to various participants and organizers, it becomes clear that the complexity of Rustin's life speaks more readily to people today than any attempt to portray him as simply a gay hero.

One sign that this will not be a group of academics talking to each other is that the event is spearheaded by the Gender and Sexuality Center and not by an academic program; the conference is also free and open to the public. The UIC conference is one of many such events across the country. The Center's director, Megan Carney, said that the idea to bring one to Chicago came from a student, Kris Clutter, who had heard Mandy Carter, a driving force behind the celebrations, speak about Rustin and the centennial plans.

Carney said that the conference will be intentionally "intergenerational and interdisciplinary" and that it would be grounded in history but "not nostalgic." The larger point is to allow present-day activists, including youth activists, "to apply what they can learn from Rustin's legacy."

For Mandy Carter, a social-justice activist based in Durham, N.C., Rustin's life has been fascinating because of its parallels to her own. Co-founder of Southerners On New Ground ( SONG ) as well as the National Black Justice Coalition, Carter has long organized on issues connecting homophobia, poverty, and racism. Born in 1948, Carter never met Rustin but learned of his life and work when members of the American Friends Service Committee came to her high school class and spoke about him. "As a Black, gay man heavily involved with activism, he became my role model," she said.

Carter emphasized that the idea for the centennial "started before me" and that the organizers of marches commemorating the 1963 event have wanted to ensure that Black and gay voices would also be heard in the celebrations. The fact that Rustin's centennial is this year and the March's 50th anniversary is in 2013 means that there will be a longer period of time to mark his contribution. For Carter, the two events also mark "an almost unbelievable historical narrative, from Bayard Rustin to Barack Obama."

Carter has long-term connections to Chicago, which she has often visited to work with the Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays. She is also a long-time friend of John D'Emilio, who taught for some years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. D'Emilio is scheduled to speak at the conference, providing an overview of Rustin's life and work. Carter will provide the keynote address.

If some of the new-found attention being paid to Rustin has meant a tendency to appropriate him for particular causes as a gay hero, D'Emilio cautioned that Rustin was "not a single-issue, single-identity activist. He believed that all the issues of injustice were linked, as a pacifist who understood that there would be no peace without racial justice and no racial equality as long as poverty was an issue."

D'Emilio's contribution to the conference also comes in the shape of some of the materials he was able to find during his research for the book. David Platt, whom he met, gave him some of his personal correspondence with Rustin. D'Emilio also has copies of other correspondence, and these will be the basis for a performance piece at the conference.

D'Emilio has been struck by the enthusiasm for Rustin from students, and their surprise upon first hearing of him: "They're outraged they never heard of him before, and ask, 'Why are people like him being denied to me?'" His hope is that the conference will allow students and activists to reclaim Rustin and to learn how to organize people collectively, rather than from the top down.

Jinna Holt is one of the students involved in the performance. A junior at UIC and a gender/women's-studies major, Holt had heard about Rustin, but working on the piece has given her a keener understanding of his legacy. Among the letters that the performance is based on are those written by the FBI as they surveilled Rustin, and Holt spoke of the great contrast between what she represented there and what she knew about his "multi-faceted" and passionate life: "I read those and wonder, how could they see him as a danger? He was a radical, but the antithesis of dangerous." She was also struck by how he dealt with being in prison, and his "stoicism" in the face of hardship.

Holt said she considers herself a trans ally, and also works and writes about racial-justice issues. For her, Rustin is an enigmatic figure who shows how to move forward despite enormous setbacks: "He inspires me to continue doing what I do. He's also an example of using your voice and not your body, and of understanding where the [ opposition ] is coming from, where they are at."

Kris Clutter, a senior majoring in political science, learned about Rustin in one of D'Emilio's classes. At the time, he was also interning at People's Law Office, which represented Fred Hampton and the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. Working in an office replete with images of Hampton and his allies and understanding their struggles from the perspective of those who supported their work, Clutter could not help but see parallels between Hampton and Rustin. He said, "Both their stories were similar in that they were not the most polished, unlike those of Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk. Their stories are not the sort that mainstream America would learn about, such as Rustin being picked up for public sex. But they're both radical leaders and they exemplify how such histories are not told in the dominant narrative about America."

If Clutter and Holt are emblematic of what happens when more people are exposed to Rustin's life, there may still be hope that U.S. politics accepts complexity rather than continuing to flatten out lives in the interest of a traditional "Great Heroes" narrative. Rustin's career trajectory might also prompt us to reconsider whether we have truly achieved an era of great equality when the laws governing sexual conduct have become more onerous for some. Despite the stigmatizing he suffered in his earlier years, Rustin went on to become a respected and even revered activist. Among those he worked with and influenced are public figures like Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

However, for these very reasons, we might want to return to the 1953 incident. Today, we live with far more draconian sex-offender laws, where even a consensual sex act in public can be deemed an offense that bars people from employment and housing, for life. Would Rustin have been able to come out from under the weight of the punishment meted out to him today? Rustin is a hero for many. Do our times really afford that same opportunity for someone as complicated and complex?

The website for the conference is www.uic.edu/depts/quic/gsc/bayardrustin.html . The conference will take place March 30-31 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Further information about events across the country can be found at www.rustin.org .


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