Bayard Rustin in 1965, by Stanley Wolfson for the World Telegram and Sun, from Rustin’s Wikipedia page.
[Warning! Another jumbo post alert!]
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh deep in my heart
I do belive
That we shall overcome some day
Thus go the lyrics to the single most emblematic spiritual of the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It provides the opening soundtrack to this video of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s best known speech. (The page includes audio, video, and the text of the speech.) On the day finally set aside to celebrate Dr. King, his stirring “I Have A Dream” speech in front of over 250,000 that day usually symbolizes the apogee of his life and work.
But as any student of both King and the Civil Righs Movement will tell you, his oratory and activism spanned a vast range of issues, anti-war and anti-poverty among the most readily overlooked by those who would white-wash his contribution to American social justice struggles. Often overlooked as well, and not accidentally, was the contribution of the Gay African American man who was the Deputy Director and chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bayard Rustin.
In a September, 2003 Nation piece entitled “From Protest to Patronage,” Randall Kennedy reviewed historian John D’Emilio’s just published Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. Preceeding the review is a thoughtful survey of Rustin’s contributions over the years, from his early work with A. Phillip Randolph to his advising of a young Dr. King in Ghandian strategies, to his being ostracized from movement work by “sexual blackmail” on the part of Adam Clayton Powell, to his reemergence as the principal architect of the historic 1963 March on Washington:
He lined up the support of the major civil rights organizations, many unions, an ecumenical roster of prominent religious leaders and scores of celebrities (including Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr., Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier and, yes, Charlton Heston). Rustin methodically addressed nitty-gritty details involving transportation, policing, toilets, housing, food, medical care, trash disposal, entertainment, etc. He calmed the jittery nerves of supporters who feared failure, overcame the objections of President Kennedy, who feared disorder, and mollified egotistical civil rights leaders who suspected that rivals would reap greater benefits than themselves. Bringing to bear skills he had honed for decades, Rustin set the stage for a massive display of support for the civil rights movement as some 250,000 people converged on Washington on a workday–Wednesday, August 28, 1963.
Kennedy continues to describe Rustin’s move to the political center in the years following the March, and his taking up, in the final decades of his life and with some reservations, the cause of gay and lesbian liberation. In a much-repeated 1986 statement during a talk to Black and White Men Together (or BWMT), he said that “the barometer for social change is measured by selecting the group which is most mistreated,” and that now “the new ‘n_ gg _rs’ are gays.” This statement may sound validating to some, betraying to others.
I myself am disinclined to make direct comparison between oppressions, finding analogy is as close as one ought to venture, and then primarily as a means of comprehension. But when comparison is what one’s up to, the genocidal Middle Passage of Africans to America, two hundred fifty years of chattel slavery, and another hundred years of de jure discrimination stand alone in North American history. Yet for better or worse, a sanitized version of the BWMT statement now sits near the top of the Wikipedia entry on Ruskin, and for those whose knowledge of the man derives from E-Z online searching, it will become a defining statement. At least he is not alone among civil rights figures in drawing some connection between the two struggles: Coretta Scott King has been outspoken for quite some time (Mombian notes as much here; here’s another compendium on hatecrime.org). Dolores Huerta and Julian Bond are present and accounted for as well:
Solmonese: How do you see our fight for equality â€” whether itâ€™s in the workplace or in our everyday lives â€” as compared with the great civil rights movement that you and others ushered through in this country?
Bond: Well, I think with minor, minor exceptions, it is an exact parallel. A couple of years ago, I was in Seattle and this white guy came up to me and identified himself as a steel worker and said he was so grateful to the NAACP. I said, â€œWhy?â€ He said [it was] because the NAACP had filed a suit against restrictive seniority rules that privileged white workers, and it dis-privileged him. He was denied the chance to promotion on his job. But the black NAACP fought the fight for black workers, and the benefits were felt by white workers like him. When the black civil rights movement wins an advance, it isnâ€™t a black advance. It is an advance for all people. Everyone moves forward. Everyone takes another step. Thatâ€™s true with gays and lesbians; itâ€™s true with Hispanics; itâ€™s true with women. Itâ€™s true with all of us.
In the spring of 1993, nearly thirty years after Rustin’s triumphant March on Washington, I visited the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the first time. It was the Friday night before what would be the largest all-lesbian March on Washington, an event which itself preceeded the huge April 25 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. (The smallest crowd estimate for that march, by the National Park Service, clocked in at 50,000 more than the historic 1963 march. Attendees knew it was something like three times as many.) An ad hoc planning meeting of Lesbian Avengers from various cities had just finished, and I needed to make a pilgrimmage to the site of King’s speech in the quiet of the night. In college I had found myself by working with an interracial student group which sought to continue King’s legacy, and had steeped myself in study of the Movement.
I am not a weeper, generally speaking, and as of then — before my mother died, which she would do that fall — I had never been moved to weep by something as abstract as a place, symbolizing a thing. But in the chill of the evening, when most of the visitors in town were at parties or planning meetings or both, I walked half-way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, turned to face the Washington Mall, and could not help but weep. I wept for the collective power of so much hope, of so much determination, so much love, all expressed together. Wept to think — no, to feel — that I might be able to be a part of that, in some kind of way, in my own lifetime.
At the time, my field of vision encompassed racial justice, gender justice and, now LGBT civil rights. I was over a decade away from my parenthood. Had no idea who would be dying in my life, who would hold my hand through those deaths, who was yet to be born. Didn’t realize how much more powerful my own hope and determination and love could be, when turned toward the bright light of young lives in my care. I do believe however that that night, I realized — or felt, finally — that Ghandi was right:
It is the law of love that rules mankind… Whether humanity will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not disturb me. The law will work just as the law of gravitation works, whether we accept it or not. The person who discovered the law of love was a far greater scientist than any of our modern scientists. Only our explorations have not gone far enough and so it is not possible for everyone to see all its workings.