"Wed., Nov. 20, 2013, was a milestone in the building of the legacy of Bayard Rustin. On that day a Black man, a great-grandson of slaves, an illegitimate child raised in a monetarily poor household, born gay, a minority within a minority and an activist under government surveillance for almost half of his life received the nation's highest civilian honorthe Presidential Medal of Freedomfrom the nation's first African-American president, Barack Obama."
This was just one of many statements Walter Naeglethe late Bayard Rustin's partnermade about Rustin's life and legacy during his keynote address at the daylong event, "Bayard Rustin: Celebrating His Time on Two Crosses," April 25 at University Church Chicago.
Jason Carson Wilson, founder of the Bayard Rustin Society ( and a writer for Windy City Times ), organized the event.
Naegle explained that during Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony he was approached by writer and activist Gloria Steinem who told him she was happy that Rustin was being recognized because he had always been supportive of women's rights. Naegle said that when he spoke to President Barack Obama that day the president said Rustin made Obama possible. He also noted the significance of this award being given to Rustin on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the fact that he, along with Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy ( Dr. Sally Ride's life partner ) were the first same-sex partners to accept the award on behalf of their late partners.
"I thought this was a measure of the degree to which Americans have come to recognize LGBT families who, in earlier times, would have been sidelined as blood relatives stood in their place," said Naegle. "But most importantly, I noted that this placed Bayard in the pantheon of 20th century individuals who were committed to further democratizing of our country, and of the world."
As for the civil-rights movement, Naegle noted that before the March on Washington Rustin was largely a behind-the-scenes figure. Naegle explained that due to the success of the march that all changed when Rustin made the cover of Life magazine.
Naegle noted that the roots of Rustin's activism began during his childhood in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "His commitment to the non-violent struggle for equality and social justice stemmed from the values instilled in him by his grandmother, who had been reared in a Quaker household where her mother was a servant," said Naegle. "A founding member of the local NAACP chapter, Bayard remembered his grandmother as the person everyone came to when they needed help."
His early activism, Naegle noted, consisted of challenging the segregated seating policy at the local Warner movie theater. Rustin sat in the whites only section and was arrested when he refused to move, Naegle explained. Naegle said that Rustin also organized his teammates to protest separate sleeping arrangements for whites and blacks when they were on the road for out-of-town games.
Naegle spoke about Rustin's time with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation ( FOR ) where he served as a field secretary, the formation of the Committee on Racial Equality within FOR with the purpose of challenging Jim Crow segregation through non-violent direct action. They did this, Naegle explained, with the purpose of bringing attention to segregation policies by subjecting themselves to beatings, arrests, fines and imprisonment.
"Bayard served time on a chain gang for violating local laws in North Carolina and wrote of his experiences in one of his most famous articles, '22 Days on a Chain Gang'," said Naegle. "The article, which was serialized in The New York Post, reported on a harrowing time working 12 hour days doing hard labor in brutal heat and being housed in inhumane conditions."
Naegle spoke about the various times that Rustin was exiled from the civil-rights movement, beginning with his 1953 morals charge arrest.
"The success of the March on Washington was transformative, both for the country and for Bayard, personally. … It was a pivotal day, because it served as the model for the even larger demonstrations by labor groups, anti-war activists, LGBT-rights groups, women's groups and other over the last 50 years," said Naegle. "The March also had a transformative effect on Bayard, both personally and politically. A number of times during the decade prior to the March, Bayard's radical politics as well as his relatively open sexuality as a gay man, had been used to blackmail others unto casting him into exile from the day-to-day work of the civil rights movement. But 1963 was different.
"Over the protests of the other members of the 'Big Six' civil rights organizations, A. Philip Randolph insisted on appointed Bayard as his deputy. … So largely because of the success of the March and the courage of A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard went from being a man in the shadowsa 'Brother Outsider,' if you willto one who was able to step into the light and to establish his own identity as a leader."
Naegle explained that, after the March, Rustin's view of creating social and political change was altered. Rustin saw how important it was to organize politically, said Naegle. One way he did this was to work on getting African-American's to the ballot box so they could become full participants in the political process once the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, said Naegle.
Naegle also noted Rustin's work in other social justice movements over the years including working to protect the property and rights of Japanese-Americans who were interred during World War II, protesting the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union and protesting the development and testing of atomic weapons both in the U. S, and abroad.
"Late in life he began to speak out for LGBT rights, testifying before the New York City Council in support of a gay rights bill, speaking to the National Association of Black and White Together and to chapters of Dignity and Integrity as well as LGBT activists on college campuses," said Naegle. "And when AIDS was still largely a disease confined to white gay men, he urged the Black leadership to become involved in the fight for more research, better treatment and community education, for he knew that any disease would eventually work its way into poor communities of color. I think he would be amazed at the progress the LGBT community has made in the last two decades and he would recognize that we have moved, as did the African-American civil rights movement, from a movement rooted in protest, to one that is politically powerful."
During the Q&A session Naegle noted that most of Rustin's papers are housed in the Library of Congress and acknowledged the people who've kept Rustin's life and message alive including LGBT people of color and Victor Salvo ( who was in attendance ) with The Legacy Walk where Rustin's biography is displayed.
Naegle also noted the recent paperback release of "Time On Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin" with a new foreward by President Obama and afterward by former Rep. Barney Frank as well as the book he co-authored with Jacqueline Houtman and Michael G. Long, "Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist."
The day's events also featured a panel discussion with openly gay Pastor Jamie Frazier of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago; Kim Hunt, Affinity Community Services executive director and Timuel Black, Chicago historian and one of Rustin's mentors as well as a screening of "Brother Outsider"a documentary about Rustin's life.
The event was sponsored by the Bayard Rustin Society at Chicago Theological Seminary, University Church Chicago, Chicago Metropolitan Association of UCC and Affinity Community Services.
See www.facebook.com/BayardRustinSociety for more information.
Read about a panel discussion that took place on the same day at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Panel-addresses-Bayard-Rustins-life-and-legacy/51307.html .