A Bayard Rustin Centennial Conference took place in Chicago last weekend to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the gay African-American civil-rights activist's birth. The University of Illinois ( UIC ) at Chicago Gender and Sexuality Center sponsored the March 30-31 conference.
Rustin is probably best remembered as Martin Luther King Jr.'s right-hand man during a significant portion of the civil-rights movement. King and his fellow organizers kept Rustin's sexuality under wraps out of fear he would tarnish their activism. When a politician threatened to expose Rustin, King accepted his resignation.
Rustin stayed in the shadows for three years until he was called upon to organize the 1963 March on Washington, causing infighting among movement leaders because some believed Rustin would embarrass the marchbecause he was gay.
"How do we honor Bayard Rustin properly?" said Megan Carney, an organizer of the conference and director of the center. "We knew it would require a forum of diverse voices and communication. … . We really wanted to weave together different voices and experiences for the conference."
The conference kicked off with a keynote address from Mandy Carter, an African-American lesbian social-justice advocate wh has been organizing since 1968. Jinna Holt, a UIC junior majoring in gender and women's studies, introduced Carter.
Carter is the national coordinator of the Bayard Rustin Centennial 2012 Project of the National Black Justice Coalition.
As a young African-American woman living in an orphanage, Carter began to come out as a lesbian and looked for someone like her. At the time, she did not know about Rustin or his work, and she lamented not having him as a role model.
"This is so precious to me. Bayard's centennial presents a unique opportunity to share who he is, what he did and how he influences us today," said Carter.
A disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, Rustin was committed to non-violence, which Carter admires.
Since 1983, the African-American community has been trying to find a way to recognize Rustin's contributions in decennial commemorations of the 1963 march on Washington, explained Carter. They started by inviting an African-American LGBT speaker to the event and, eventually, by the 2003 celebration, they asked LGBT organizations Southerners On New Ground and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to co-sponsor the event.
Carter also highlighted Rustin's other accomplishments, including his artistic talents.
"We want to see all of Bayard. He wasn't just a thinker, a strategist. He was a singer. He was a writer. He contributed to his culture," said Carter.
Members of the UIC theater department ( Jasmin Camarillo, Luigi Salerni, Daniel 'DK' Simmons and Maximus Thomas ) read "Tonight We Remember," an original performance adapted from archival letters written by Rustin and from files from prison guards and doctors during the 1940s. It details Rustin's imprisonment in Ashland, Ky., sentenced to four years for refusing to serve in the military during World War II.
Rustin stirred up trouble in prison, organizing hunger strikes and other acts of civil disobedience to desegregate the prison, with one guard's account describing Rustin as an "extremely capable agitator."
Guards and fellow inmates discovered Rustin's homosexuality, and he was separated from the general population and forced to perform menial work. Doctors examined him and found him mentally ill, transferring him to a harsher prison. There he focused on his release, so he could rejoin the civil-rights fight on the outside.
" [ Rustin ] just inspires me and gives me hope for me and my generation today. Perhaps I can make a difference, too," said Jasmin Camarillo, one of the performers of "Tonight We Remember."
Rustin also loved music, drawing on traditional spirituals in his acts of resistance. Anthony P. McGlaun closed the evening by singing several of them, including "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen," accompanied by director and pianist Johari Jabir.
The March 31 program featured a series of speeches and panel discussions.
Rustin historian John D'Emilio, author of Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, kicked off the day with a discussion of the complex legacy of Rustin, including his relationship with the peace movement, President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.
The next panel featured Johari Jabir, assistant professor of African-American Studies at UIC; Adam Green, associate professor of American history at the University of Chicago; and Barbara Ransby, UIC interim provost for planning and programs and author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. They were joined by D'Emilio.
The afternoon session was on intersectional coalition building and planned speakers were Kim Hunt, executive director of Affinity Community Services; Asucena Lopez and Jasmine Thomas, Chicago Freedom School Fellows; Rev. Benjamin Reynolds; and Shari E. Runner, senior vice president for strategy and community development at the Chicago Urban League.
The conference concluded April 1 with a discussion of how to continue the Rustin year of commemorations and events. See www.rustin.org for more information.
Also contributing: Tracy Baim