Legendary Love: Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle

As we continue to pay tribute in our own way to upcoming Valentine's Day, the partner of the gay civil rights activist and organizer of the March on Washington shares his side of the story.

BY Robert Drayton

February 12 2014 8:00 AM ET

Walter Naegle (left) and Bayard Rustin. Photo courtesy of Walter Naegle

This week, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This march pressured the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act, promoting equality in a country that had espoused freedom and equality for all since its inception, and yet had continuously come short of that mark.

Our country moves closer to its goal this year with Supreme Court rulings striking down DOMA and Prop. 8. In addition, the Obama administration has announced that it will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award offered by our government, to Bayard Rustin, who was a key organizer of that 1963 march. Because he was gay, Rustin was usually not accorded the recognition given to others in the civil rights movement.

With the White House announcement of the recipients 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 8, more Americans are learning about Bayard Rustin, a pacifist, civil rights leader, and a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., who rallied over 200,000 people to march on Washington — without the aid of computers or the Internet. But there's one chapter of Rustin’s life story that still remains an enigma — his personal life.

Last week Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last 10 years of his life, spoke about his relationship with Bayard and his feelings about the medal. “I think it’s wonderful. Certainly well deserved,” Naegle says, sitting in the Manhattan apartment he shared with Rustin. “In Bayard’s case, it recognizes him as someone who was working to expand our democratic freedoms and increase our civil liberties and our individual freedoms. There were times that he got it from both the right and the left, but this establishes him as someone who made an important contribution to the growth of the country while not pandering to either extreme.”

Bayard’s refusal to create a political image that would cater to a particular party often got him into trouble. “He wouldn’t have been particularly comfortable being the type of political person who has to run and get votes and take positions and not veer from them,” Naegle explains. “He was always very much the individual.”

Rustin was never ashamed of his homosexuality, but his strong sense of self was rarely reinforced by his peers. Early in his career, he came into opposition with leaders like A.J. Muste with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who asked Rustin to put his homosexuality aside. “The FOR was a Christian-based organization. A.J. Muste, his boss, felt that this was an illness and it needed to be treated psychiatrically,” Naegle says. “He certainly thought there was a need for Bayard to be a little more discreet about his behavior.”

It wasn’t until Rustin’s arrest in 1953 for homosexual acts that he decided to be more discreet with his liaisons for the sake of the movement. “I don’t think he felt he had to suppress his sexuality," says Naegle. "He never tried to be straight or he never went around with women on his arms or anything like that. He never pretended that he was not homosexual, but I think he felt that he needed to tone down some of his urges.”

According to Davis Platt, who died in 2008 and Rustin’s first major partner at the beginning of his career, Rustin never tried to hide who he was and was honest about his homosexuality if asked. “He gave off an aura of being artistic. I don’t mean effeminate, but he probably looked effeminate to some people. He was tall and walked with self-confidence," Platt explained. "If anybody asked him, he would have told the truth, whereas most gay people back then would deny it.”

 


Above illustration from Ryan Grant Long's tribute, "Love, Historically."

As the civil rights movement gained momentum during the 1950s, it was easy for Bayard to put his relationships to the side. “Davis and I are really the two people who are probably the bookends of his life,” Naegle says. “I think the period between Davis and me, which was really 30 years, was packed with work. Once Montgomery started in 1955 until 1968 when Dr. King was killed, I don’t think he could have done justice to a long-term relationship.”

Naegle met Bayard in 1977, when his activity within the movement had quieted down. “He was still very active, but it wasn’t that intense battlefront that they had during the civil rights period,” Naegle says. The two met, like many New Yorkers do, while waiting for the signal to change on a busy street on a spring day. A considerable age difference — Rustin was 65 and Naegle 27 — didn't keep them apart.

“We really didn’t encounter any outright prejudice. We didn’t walk down the street holding hands," Nagels says. "Sometimes he would put his arm around me and we would walk down the street. I think when people saw the two of us coming, it was like, ‘Well, what is this? They couldn’t possible be lovers. Is it a boy taking out his elderly friend?’”

Another hurdle Rustin faced was the race of his partners, with both Platt and Naegle being white. “It was not common at all to see black and white men together,” Platt explained. “I think the answer really has to be who you’re attracted to. And that person might be black and that person might not be. You’ll know when the time comes, and you have to go with what you feel. There are people who may not be happy with my choice and if it’s an issue, they will have to deal with it.”

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