Reflections on Bayard Rustin for MLK Day, 2013

I grew up in an all white Irish farming community and went to Catholic schools where African Americans, or any people of color for that matter, were as rare as hen’s teeth. FYI, hens have no teeth. I did though have the opportunity to be informed and sensitized to the amazing reality of racial inequality in America in the late 1960’s by my high school government/civics teacher. This teacher was a Holy Cross nun whose enlightenment on these issues put her truly in a league of her own in northern Illinois in 1967. An amazingly dynamic woman named Sister Alberta Marie (SAM) showed me the harsh realties of racial injustice in America and the horrible folly and crime that was the war in Vietnam.

SAM was herself very involved in peace activist work primarily, though not exclusively, aimed at opposing the war in Vietnam. She brought the great Jesuit activist Father Daniel Barrigan to our high school my senior year, an effort I always thought instrumental in getting her booted out of the Order a short time later. Important for me personally she arranged to send a small group of her students, myself included, to rural Mississippi to observe the activities of literacy teachers working primarily with poor black farm workers. This trip to Mississippi coincided closely with my own first male sexual encounters with a wonderful mentor several decades older than myself. My senior year was quite busy and many of my activities had lifelong and very positive implications.

The harsh realities of life for the black folks I ran into in Mississippi were almost incomprehensible for a little middle class white kid. I was though aware of Martin Luther King Jr. and viewed him as the leader of the Civil Rights movement but it was this trip that started to bring it all home in a very real and substantive fashion. I knew about the 1963 march on Washington and the “I Have a Dream Speech”. Someone I was not aware of, though I may have at least heard his name, was Bayard Rustin. As it turns out this very openly gay man was not only a mentor for Dr. King he was the main architect for the 1963 March on Washington and the person most responsible for bringing the potent concept of nonviolent action to the Civil Rights movement.

Remarkably Bayard was boldly open about his sexuality in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It was an arrest and conviction on “morals charges” in California in 1953 that was to haunt him and in many respects diminish the credit he richly deserves for his role in the Civil Rights movement. The “crime” he was convicted of was sex with a couple other men in the back seat of a car; it did not even involve being busted in a public cruising area the most common form of institutional terror inflicted on gay men at the time. He was throughout his life a frequent target of FBI surveillance and, I suspect, mischief meant to discredit his powerful organizing capabilities that in many respects made him such a potent target of the racist forces opposed to civil liberties for African Americans in the early 1960’s. Strom Thurmond in an attempt to derail the 1963 March made a point of publically stating that a “pervert” was largely organizing the whole affair.

Bayard was though a very active proponent of civil rights long before the 1960’s and was pushing to sit in the front of the bus long before Rosa Parks. He was a Quaker and had been involved and active in a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation. His involvement with this group also curtailed by the public humiliation that came along with his arrest and conviction for the “crime” of loving another man. He was also a strong advocate of workers rights and a strong supporter of the Trade Unions. He was of course, as were most activists worth their salt back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, involved with the Communist Party. He did significant prison time in the 1940’s for resisting the draft. This activist pedigree when looked at in its totality including in part being a felon, a draft dodger, a pervert, a nonviolent disciple of Gandhi, an African American and a communist is quite impressive and really has no equal when compared with LGBT leaders of today.

One of his most profound insights and something he stressed through sixty years of activism is that we are all in this together. Certain Buddhists refer to this as the concept of One Taste. Bayard Rustin truly grasped the essence of One Taste in the following statement: “We are all one and if we don’t know it we will learn it the hard way”. So on this MLK day in 2013 I would encourage all my LGBT brothers and sisters to remember these words from our dear comrade Bayard and be willing to expand our work and activism beyond our own, albeit legitimate, concerns of marriage and military service. What a great gift from our community if we could produce more Bayard Rustin’s fighting for income equality, world peace, repeal of the Second Amendment and a Manhattan project to address climate change.

If you are more interested in the life of this great gay man who played such an integral role in the life and activism of Martin Luther King Jr. I highly suggest the award-winning documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (2003), available on Netflix. Also the very extensive biography, The Lost Prophet (2003) available on Kindle by John D’Emilio, is well worth the read.

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