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CHM celebrates Rustin at 100
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2012-02-15

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The Chicago History Museum hosted a presentation on Bayard Rustin, the late African-American and gay activist who organized the famed 1963 March on Washington D.C. The event, "Bayard Rustin at 100," was part of the museum's "Out at CHM" series.

The presenters were Bennett Singer, co-director and co-producer of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, and Walter Naegle, life partner of Rustin until his death in 1987. Roderick Hawkins, vice president of communications at the Chicago Urban League, was the facilitator who combined humor with reflections and observations about Rustin's life and the film.

The evening consisted of various clips from the film, interspersed with brief discussions. As Hawkins said in his introduction, Rustin is sometimes referred to as an outsider, and sometimes as a "lost prophet" (the title of Chicago historian's John D'Emilio's biography). Each term evokes his place as an out gay African American who was often made vulnerable because of his race and sexual orientation.

Through various clips, the presentations traced Rustin's life in a family that, according to Naegle, gave him enormous love and security. According to Naegle, this was why Rustin was as comfortable at a White House event as he was visiting a refugee camp in Thailand. So comfortable was he in his own skin that he came out to his grandmother as a teenager.

Rustin's openly expressed sexuality was no secret to anyone. However, this also meant that he was often the target of political rivals who would threaten to expose him as a "homosexual."

This was, in large part, the reason why Rustin never attained the stature of civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., who once dismissed him from his circle upon the threat of a scandal. (The two reconciled later.)

In another clip from the film, Congresswoman Eleanor Norton surmised that Rustin's relative place in the background was because he preferred to be an organizer as well as because "he recognized in a world where homosexuality was widely condemned, he would not be allowed" to gain the stature befitting his talents. Despite this, Rustin did gain recognition, appearing on the cover of Life magazine in 1963.

The clips and discussion followed Rustin through his later years, where he became well-known as a spokesperson for various causes and more often associated with the gay rights movement. Questions from the audience included queries about Rustin's relationship to other radical political movements of the time.


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