On Aug. 24, 1987, one of the most significant, audacious and passionate figures both in the United States civil rights movement and innumerable worldwide causes dedicated to the betterment of humanity and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom breathed his last breath.
Twenty-nine years to the day that Bayard Rustin bequeathed a lifetime of achievement and a mantel for future generations to take up in reaching for what he called the "ultimate goal of human freedom," the Chicago-based outdoor LGBT museum and LGBT educational advocacy organization The Legacy Project partnered with Affinity Community Services, The Northalsted Business Alliance and The Center on Halsted for an evening dedicated to that life and the man who forged it.
The event began with an invocation ceremony at The Legacy Walk's memorial plaque for Rustin at the 3300 block of North Halsted Street in Lake View.
Rustin's surviving partner, Walter Naegle, made the journey from New York to play a key role in the celebration.
"I usually spend these anniversaries by myself but, when [Legacy Project founder and executive director] Victor Salvo extended this invitation to come out here, I thought that this was something I really needed to do," Naegle said. "Because the Legacy Project is so important to educating, especially young people, about the history of the LGBT [community] and LGBT people of color."
"We are not afraid to say his name, Bayard Rustin," The Reverend Benjamin Ledell Reynolds asserted in leading the invocation. "We remember a visionary, an activist, a strategist, the one who has been christened The Unknown Hero of the Civil Rights Movement; a tireless crusader for justice, a disciple of Gandhi and a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. We remember the architect of the legendary 1963 March on Washington."
"[He] dared to live as an openly gay man during a fiercely homophobic 1940s, '50s and '60s, when it was not convenient to do so," Reynolds added. "We remember that it was he who paved the way of possibilities for those of us today who would challenge the systems of society and be bold enough to walk in his footsteps and in our own truth."
A visceral portrait of those footsteps was captured in the 2003 Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer multi-award winning documentary Brother Outsider.
Following the invocation and a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace by Broadway Methodist Church praise and worship leader Jackie Boyd, the film was screened for a capacity audience at the Center's Hoover Leppen Theatre.
In a lively post-screening question and answer session moderated by celebrated journalist, Guardian contributing writer and Out Magazine Editor-at-Large Zach Stafford, both Naegle and LGBTQ historian, author and retired UIC professor John D'Emilio examined aspects of the film and Rustin's life, work and legacy.
"I knew who [Rustin] was before I met him," Naegle said. "The person I came to know was also the person who sang to children in a refugee camp in Thailand. He was more of a loving, gentle and human figure in addition to being a militant pacifist."
D'Emilio acknowledged that, although his own work on Rustin began as an opportunistic angle into writing about the 1960s, he was "overwhelmed by his life."
"Every social movement of consequence, he was involved with," D'Emilio said. "There's a hardly a question you can ask yourself about how to make change in the world that Rustin's life won't help you find the answer to. I think of him as being one of the most important social-justice activists in 20th-century Americafar beyond what people attribute to him."
Yet Rustin's erasure as such a figure from the historical narrative was something illustrated to Stafford earlier in the evening by a young gay man who admitted knowing nothing about him.
"[Rustin] was never in it for recognition," Naegle said. "He was in it because he loved to do the work."
"As a culture, we live with historical amnesia," D'Emilio noted. "In Rustin's case it was compounded by the Quaker influence which was really important to his life. It's the quality of the work that's been done and what you build rather than being the person who gets credit for it. His being gay in that generation made it doubly necessary for him to work in the background. All of that conspires to make him not noticed in history."
Repairing this glaring omission and others like it is part of the life-blood of The Legacy Project's mission.
Salvo said that, much in the spirit of the Rustin celebration, the organization intends to begin a tradition "of always tying history to something on a particular day and, whenever possible, to someone who is on The Legacy Walk and building a program around them."
"We need to bring our history and our culture into this community in a very tangible way," Salvo concluded.
The lessons, inspiration and hope that are embodied in Rustin's life served as a defining illustration of Salvo's point.
For more information about The Legacy Project, visit LegacyProjectChicago.org .