Gay civil rights pioneer finds place in history at lastThe speech analyzers will come later, but next to Martin Luther King and John Lewis, the most frequent name invoked Wednesday at the March on Washington 50th anniversary event probably was Bayard Rustin.
WASHINGTON — The speech analyzers will come later, but next to Martin Luther King and John Lewis, the most frequent name invoked Wednesday at the March on Washington 50th anniversary event probably was Bayard Rustin.
The organizer of the 1963 march, Rustin made the cover of Life magazine shortly afterward, along with A. Philip Randolph, the march’s convenor and titular head. But he largely spent his life behind the scenes and was not widely known at the time of his 1987 death.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Walter Naegle, Rustin’s surviving partner, who earlier this week participated in a program in Rustin’s honor and a White House reception for the march.
“It’s a momentum that’s been growing for the last 20 years,” Naegle said. “A lot of people have worked on getting Bayard’s name out for a long time.”
That work culminated earlier this month, when the White House announced Rustin would posthumously receive the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
It’s an unlikely honor for a black, gay, civil rights and human rights activist who once flirted with communism.
Born in a family of black Quakers in 1912, Rustin became one of the architects of the civil rights movement and its major strategist. He co-led the first Freedom Ride in 1947, when nonviolent direct action to affect race relations was in its infancy.
During the Montgomery bus boycott, he served as an adviser to King, and again at the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership
Rustin’s biggest challenge came with the 1963 march, the realization of an earlier march Randolph had threatened at the outbreak of World War II. Randolph called it off when President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to integrate the defense industries. By then, Randolph was past his prime and tapped his protege to carry out the logistics of getting 250,000 people in and out of Washington peacefully.
Rustin didn’t do it alone, either.
“I spent a good part of (Monday) with Rachelle Horowitz,” Naegle said of Rustin’s chief aide on transportation logistics. “She’s also getting a lot of attention.”
Gay and rarely hiding it — though Naegle has said it would be a mistake to call Rustin a gay activist by today’s standards — Rustin was convicted on a “morals charge” in the 1950s, a blemish that may not have mattered to King but did to other black leaders. In 1960, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem gave an ultimatum to King to force Rustin off his staff. Rustin complied, for the good of the movement.
Rustin followed other interests and abandoned his lifelong embrace of pacifism, alienating other former supporters. But he also gained some.
“I have some great memories of Uncle
Bayard,” Marysia Bubacz, Naegle’s niece, said from her home in Esko, recalling a mechanical rubber hand with a rotating finger she received from the pair for her seventh birthday. “They called me into the room to surprise me, and it was awesome. ... Uncle Bayard had a wicked sense of humor, and he loved all of us kids so much.”
Later, when she went to college at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Bubacz says, “I began to realize exactly who Bayard was and what his role in this historic day was.”
A series of documentaries and books beginning in the early 1990s began to redeem Rustin from obscurity, Naegle says, leading eventually to the Medal of Freedom.
“I think this award puts Bayard where the country acknowledges his commitment to democracy and expanding human rights,” Naegle said. “There were people who questioned that commitment in the past, and I think this award affirms that commitment to the American struggle.”
But even with the recognition, Naegle says, there’s really no such thing as a household name outside of entertainment and sports figures.
“We live in a country where a percentage of the people don’t even know who the president is, so how can you expect people to know someone who died 26 years ago?” he said. “But as long as he’s in the history books and they get it right, it’s the best we can do.”