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Op-ed: Bayard Rustin Was My Love, My Leader

Op-ed: Bayard Rustin Was My Love, My Leader


Walter Naegle remembers the legacy of his late partner, the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

This New Year brings us to the midpoint of a decade and one half century after the turbulent 1960s. Then, as the first baby boomers entered their teens, political, cultural, and social events seemed to challenge attempts to return our country to the false sense of calm and security that permeated the 1950s. The Cold War, the race to space, political assassinations, the growth of rock-and-roll, and the Vietnam War challenged a younger generation to move our country and world forward. A folk music revival urged them to champion social justice, and contributed to the sound track for the most significant movement of the decade -- the nonviolent struggle for African-American civil rights.

The current decade has marked the anniversaries of the freedom rides, marches, boycotts, and other demonstrations that came into our living rooms on the nightly news during that time. Many Americans, unaware of the daily humiliation and indignities endured by African-Americans, were moved to join together to pressure elected officials to enact legislation that would end racial segregation and guarantee full political rights to all, regardless of race.

My late partner, Bayard Rustin, played a significant role in the growth and development of that movement. Actively resisting segregation as a teenager in his hometown, he moved on to become part of a small group of Christian pacifists who nonviolently challenged laws and customs that separated people by race in both the North and the South. His Quaker values compelled him to become directly involved in promoting positive change rather than waiting for divine intervention to bring it about. After more than a decade of studying and practicing Gandhian nonviolence, he was strategically positioned to become a mentor to a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and perhaps the leading strategist and tactician of a growing struggle.

Bayard was often marginalized, largely because he was gay, but the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the man often described as "behind the scenes," while others stepped into the spotlight. The centennial of his birth in 2012 was marked with new publications and academic conferences focusing on him. Commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom highlighted his role as deputy director and chief organizer, with the events coming just a few weeks following President Barack Obama's announcement that Bayard would be awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. Attending the White House ceremony in November of 2013, I was one of the first gay people, along with Sally Ride's partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, to accept an award for our late partners.

Now comes a new edition of Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, edited by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise (Cleis Press), with a foreword by President Obama and an afterword by former congressman Barney Frank. The president states, "Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. ... As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights." Barney Frank calls him "an example for young people today of how social justice can happen with commitment and conviction." With articles covering more than 40 years of activism in a number of social justice movements, this volume is a guide to charting a course of action for any movement, including the struggle for LGBT equality. Indeed, it does appear that the LGBT movement has taken some lessons from Bayard's playbook. Just as the African-American civil rights movement evolved "From Protest to Politics," the title of Rustin's most famous article, so has the LGBT fight gone from early street protests and sit-ins to political action including lobbying, petitioning, and litigation, while along the way building a coalition of forces committed to LGBT equality.

March 2015 will see events commemorating the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., a demonstration that was a defining moment in the struggle for voting rights. An initial attempt to walk the 54-mile route was stopped when police and state troopers mercilessly attacked nonviolent demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event now known as Bloody Sunday. After a second gathering, where demonstrators knelt and prayed at the bridge before dispersing, a third and successful march culminated in a rally attended by 25,000 at the state capitol in Montgomery. Bayard, his mentor A. Philip Randolph, and writer James Baldwin sat together on a platform that reflected the broad coalition of civil rights workers, trade unionists, religious leaders, performing artists, and political figures that had rallied to the cause. The new film Selma, masterfully directed by Ava DuVernay, recounts the dramatic events of that historic march.

In his New York Times review, critic A.O. Scott asks, "How long will we have to wait for a biopic devoted to Bayard Rustin, Amelia Boynton, or Andrew Young?" In Bayard's case, I hope the answer will be "not long."

WALTER NAEGLE is the surviving partner of Bayard Rustin and a coauthor of the biography Bayard Rustin, The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press).

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Walter Naegle