From civil rights activists to performance artists, many this month are celebrating the life and legacy of gay civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin who, among other things organized the 1963 March on Washington and was a cherished adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin would have turned 100 on March 17, and his long time partner, Walter Naegle, told audiences at “Voices Out Loud,” an recent Washington, D.C. evening of spoken word, film, speeches, and music in celebration of Rustin, that the work that the activist started “is far from over.” Author Michael G. Long agrees. The editor of I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, Long sat down with Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States, to talk about Rustin’s legacy.
Michael Bronski: What do you find so compelling about Bayard Rustin?
Michael G. Long: Bayard is such a compelling figure for me because he brings together, in one person, so many of my interests—gay rights, civil and human rights, nonviolence, socialism, and progressive religion. He’s really the perfect storm. And he did indeed have a stormy life. When I first read letters he penned from prison in World War II, for example, I was immediately struck by his inner struggles with his gay sexuality. And what about you, Michael? Given your landmark book on queer history, what do you see as Bayard’s main contributions to US history?
Bronski: In the book’s introduction, I state that LGBT history is really a “myth” — this is actually American history — and what I tried doing was to find threads to weave together all of the social justice movements, and their participants, into a cohesive story. Bayard actually embodied that story with his myriad involvements in a wide range of movements and struggles. He is, to some degree, the person who brings gay/black/peace/equality struggles to one place. There are few historical, or contemporary, figures who do this. But Bayard is an incredible mix of so many of the most vital movements—and identities—of the twentieth century. So he is very vital to understanding a political history of America. As I look back on his life, it’s incredible to me that he is still relatively unknown to so many people. He’s absent from mainstream, gay, and African American history books, and I was wondering, given his level of moderate obscurity, how you found these letters. Is Rustin’s personal life well archived?
Long: Fortunately, yes. Bayard’s life and legacy are nicely archived at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and at various archives across the country. Although the government conducted surveillance of Bayard at certain points, identifying him as a threat to national interests, it has wisely come around to seeing him as an American patriot whose papers — including countless, and historically rich, letters to and from Bayard — are worth preserving in our national collections. Letters in public archives are relatively easy to locate. A bit more challenging is the task of accessing letters in private hands. But some of Bayard’s friends were generous enough to offer me copies of their private letters.
Bronski: It’s great that the letters, and papers, are so available, but why do you think that no one has done this research before? Historians have known about how important Rustin was for decades, and yet you were the first to assemble all of this material. Do you think his sexuality was a stumbling block for scholars? Did it prevent them from really looking at his life and work?
Long: I’m not sure whether Bayard’s sexuality was a stumbling block for scholars, but I’m quite clear that it was for Bayard’s colleagues, including Martin Luther King, Jr. And if it was for King, of all people, it probably remains a stumbling block for many scholars today. In 1960 King cut Bayard out of his inner circle after Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem, had threatened to tell the media about a gay affair between Bayard and Dr. King. The affair never existed; Powell’s threat was hollow. At the time, Powell was trying his sneaky best to stop King from marching on the Democratic Convention. King was so frightened by the potential negative media exposure that he chose to sacrifice Bayard, this in spite of Bayard’s enormous contributions, in terms of strategy and vision, to the civil rights movement. Quite frankly, King owed a lot to Rustin. Bayard had schooled King in nonviolence, gave him his first national platform, and engineered much of the construction of the person we now know as Martin Luther King, Jr. But all that did not matter when Powell’s threat came King’s way. Let me be clear: King acted with prejudice when he forced Bayard out of the civil rights movement. It was a bigoted and prejudiced move, and it crushed Bayard.
Bronski: It’s incredible that complications so often grown out of prejudice curtail and shape social change movements. I’m also thinking of anti-lesbian sentiments in early second-wave feminism. King is such a vital and pivotal figure for most Americans that it’s easy to believe that scholars, even today, want to continue presenting him in the best light possible. Clearly any true, accurate, history has to tell the entire story of a movement—and America. What do you think it tells us that Rustin has been written out of history? Is this just homophobia, or is it something greater, like the need to construct flawless leaders, like King, and hide negative aspects of their lives? Although King has certainly come under criticism for other aspects of his life, as well. Will we ever have a fair, clear, and complex picture of American history? Is this even a goal we want to pursue?
Long: Fascinating question. We like heroes but only insofar as they don’t threaten us too much. That’s why we remember King’s dream and not the nightmare he refers to after the murder of four little girls in Birmingham shortly after the Dream speech. That’s why we remember Jackie Robinson smiling at second base in 1947, but forget that in 1972 he could not stand for the national anthem because he, as a black man, felt unwelcomed. And perhaps that’s why we’ve forgotten Bayard. In spite of his leading role in the civil rights movement, his sexuality and radical politics remain so threatening that we’d rather push him back into the closet. God knows many people tried to do so throughout his own lifetime. Even A.J. Muste, the great pacifist of the twentieth century and a man deeply influenced by the principles of love and justice, advised Bayard to sacrifice his gay relationships for the sake of the peace movement.
Bronski: Yes, the Muste story is such a sad one, and while understandable for its time, really tragic on a huge scale when we think about how we are conceptualizing these issues now. But how many openly gay labor leaders, peace activists, civil rights activists of color, eco-activists, and occupiers do we now have who are openly queer? Very few, and yet we know they are out there doing this great work. Has anything changed over the past forty years?
Long: Bayard was often asked whether the modern civil rights movement led by King really changed anything in America. And he would sometimes reply by saying that had the questioner lived through Jim Crow, with its segregated restrooms and swimming pools and schools, he or she would know beyond a doubt that life had become far better for African Americans. But he was also quick to point out the unfulfilled dream of full employment and adequate health care and education for all Americans. Perhaps similar things can be said about the LGBT rights movement. Had we lived when gays were denied security clearances in the government, when they were arrested for sodomy —Good God, wasn’t Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986? — and when gays could not be portrayed in the media as gays, we would have a sense of how far the LGBT community has come. And yet didn’t I just read another homophobic comment by another Republican presidential candidate?
Bronski: I agree that the LGBT movement has come very far. As someone who teaches LGBT history, I am always slightly shocked at what my students don’t know about the past. So a sense of history is important, but I also think that a sense of the future is as important. And as important as marriage equality and tossing out “don’t ask, don’t tell” is, I also think that the LGBT movement lacks a larger, grander vision of what full LGBT equality may look like in relation to other social justice movements. This was Rustin’s brilliance. He did have this grander vision — even when it excluded the LGBT movement — and this is what I think we need to learn from him.
Long: What kind of larger, grander vision do you have in mind?
Bronksi: The vision I have in mind is one that might connect the goals of the LGBT movement with other people’s needs. I’ve always found it very interesting that throughout the AIDS epidemic so many LGBT people and activists argued for insurance companies to cover HIV drugs and not discriminate against people with AIDS. What a perfect moment it was to have fought for universal health care, making common cause with others who are disenfranchised! But the LGBT movement, with the exception of Gay Liberation, has always fought for reform, not real, comprehensive change.
Long: You sound just like Bayard! He criticized the feminist movement for not pursuing bigger goals — like full employment and health care for all — in the early 1970s. He saw the early feminist movement as middle class, far from truly radical.
Bronski: Hardly any movement pursued bigger goals. That is always the problem —limited vision, and a self-serving vision of getting what you need now rather than seeing a larger picture of what needs to change for everyone.
But it did take Bayard a long time, until the mid-1980s, to speak out in favor of LGBT rights. Thanks to Walter Naegle, Bayard’s companion during the last ten years of his life, Bayard stepped into the public square and spoke eloquently and boldly for LGBT rights in the last few years of his life. But do you have any idea why it took Bayard so long to do this? Was he a product of his age?
Bronski: Speaking out in the mid-1980s is almost 20 years after Stonewall, and even longer after the homophile groups were started. What did he have to lose, since he had already lost so much after his various arrests and his involvement with King? Was this self-hatred or was he overly cautious? There’s something very “private” about so much of the 1950s, when Bayard was actively gay, and I understand that this could affect his entire life. We are all the product of “our age” and time, but what is ironic here is that he did speak out about so many other issues without fear. I suspect that for him, maybe, and others, sexuality was not a political issue in the same way as labor or equality under the law. For the most part — and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century radicals such a Victoria Woodhull, Walt Whitman, and Emma Goldman are exceptions — viewing sexuality and sexual behavior as “political” is a contemporary idea. I suspect he did not see his personal life, even though he was persecuted for his sexual habits, to be “political” in the sense that we know it now.
Long: In 1986 Bayard told Joseph Beam, who would go on to edit a wonderful anthology of writings by African American gays, that he considered sexual orientation to be a private matter. We should also remember, though, that Bayard had been publicly burned so many times because of his gay sexuality. Muste, King, and Strom Thurmond — they all burned him because of his sexuality.
Bronski: I think we can all appreciate that, but still there is something very “closeted,” to use a term that is anachronistic here, with that argument. I’m thinking abut Susan Sontag, who was a lesbian almost all of her adult life and spoke out on moral and ethical issues all the time but never really came out and had little to say about LGBT rights. At what point do we hold people responsible for their actions, even when we understand where they are “coming from,” as we said in the 1960s? Is it ever fair to judge people on these issues? If so, then how do we do it? If not, where does that get us?
Long: Your point is well taken here, Michael. And can you imagine what the LGBT movement might have done had Bayard joined it early on? Had Bayard consulted with gay rights pioneers like Randy Wicker and Franklin Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the movement would have been breathtaking even in the middle of the 1960s. Unfortunately, that was not to be. And Bayard recognized that, too. He denied any credit for the emergence of the early gay rights movement. Even that claim has its own problems, though, primarily because the early gay rights movement was directly influenced by the civil rights movement that Bayard had helped to lead. The connections between these two movements are thick in the writings of the early LGBT movement.
Bronski: I agree. If Bayard had come in to these conversations earlier, that would have been great. But I think the problem is larger: Americans think of sexuality as a “personal” matter so it was not just that the LGBT movement got a slow start and had limited vision. That limited vision is intrinsic to how Americans think about the role of sexuality in our lives. Think of how long it took feminism, which had been around for centuries, to confront sex and sexuality.
Long: Exactly right. And partly to your point, Bayard also told Beam that his activism did not spring from his being gay or black but from his Quaker values. How do you assess that?
Bronski: I think that so much is predicated on our sexuality we can’t even image what this may mean. Bayard saw his values as Quaker values, which they were, but the question is, Why was he drawn to these values? Did they have something to do with his being gay? Quakers have always been far more open abut sexuality and personal choices. We’ll never know, but it’s something to think about.
Long: Although Bayard did not speak out for LGBT rights early on, in the way that Gittings, Kameny, and Wicker did in the early 1960s, he never hid his sexuality from others. If you knew Bayard, you knew he was gay. And he insisted on being as openly gay as he felt he could in the face of enormous pressure from very powerful people. It’s amazing to me that he did not collapse altogether from the public criticism he received for being a “pervert,” as Strom Thurmond called him. Rustin’s willingness to stand his ground and say “‘I’m gay—deal with it” continues to be a witness to all of us.
Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2011) has been involved in Gay Liberation as a political organizer, writer, editor, publisher, and theorist since 1969. He wrote extensively for the LGBT press in the 1970s and 1980s. He is also the author of Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility and The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. He has edited several books including Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. His essays have appeared in nearly forty anthologies. As a journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator he has been published in a wide array of venues including The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, GLQ, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Phoenix. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Women’s and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies program sat Dartmouth College
Michael G. Long is an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College and is the author or editor of several books on civil rights, religion, and politics in mid-century America, including Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall and First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson. Long’s books have been featured or reviewed in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, USA Today, Book Forum, Ebony, Jet, and many other newspapers and journals. He has appeared on C-Span and NPR, and his speaking engagements have taken him from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to the Houston Public Library, to the City Club of San Diego and the Metropolitan Club in New York City.