Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bayard Rustin: Gay saint of civil rights and non-violence

“Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle” by Ryan Grant Long

“Bayard Rustin - Pride” by Sean J. Randall

Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin was a black gay man and chief organizer of the influential 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington -- which marks its anniversary next week on Aug. 28. A follower of the Quaker faith with its pacifist tradition, he brought Gandhi-style non-violent protest techniques to the movement for racial equality and become a close advisor to Martin Luther King. He died 27 years ago today (Aug. 24, 1987) at age 75.

Rustin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in a White House ceremony in 2013. “For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King's side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin's memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love,” President Obama said when he presented the medal for Rustin.

Pushed into the background because he was openly gay in a more homophobic era, Rustin has been called “an invisible hero,” “a lost prophet” and “Brother Outsider.”  He summed up his philosophy when he said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”  He is honored here as a gay saint.

Rustin (Mar.17, 1912 - Aug. 24, 1987) rarely served as a public spokesperson for civil rights because he was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was criminalized and stigmatized. His sexuality was criticized by both segregationists and some fellow workers in the peace and civil-rights movements. In the 1970s he began to advocate publicly for lesbian and gay causes.

From 1955-68 Rustin was a leading strategist for the African American civil rights movement. His decades of achievements include helping launch the first Freedom Rides in 1947, when civil disobedience was used to fight racial segregation on buses. He helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and much more.

Rustin’s sexual orientation became publicly known in 1953, when he was arrested for homosexual activity in Pasadena, California. He pleaded guilty to a charge of consensual “sex perversion” (sodomy) and served 60 days in jail. It was not his first stint in jail. He had been arrested before for his pacifist refusal to participate in World War II and he served on a chain gang for breaking Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation on public transportation.

Mug shot of Bayard Rustin (Wikimedia Commons) taken for failure to report for his Selective Service physical exam

Rustin saw the connections between racial justice, women’s equality and LGBT rights. He made it vividly clear in a controversial speech to the Philadelphia chapter of Black and White Men Together on March 1, 1986. The speech, titled “The New ‘N*s’ are Gays,” is one of several pieces about LGBT rights in his book Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Rustin states:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “n*s” are gays. … It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

The following year Rustin died of a ruptured pancreas on Aug. 24, 1987. Late August is also significant for him because the March on Washington held on Aug. 28, 1963. Organized by Rustin, the March was where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. An estimated 250,000 people attended, making it the largest demonstration held in the U.S. capital until that time. The full synthesis of Rustin’s black and gay identities -- the “two crosses” of his book title -- came as the culmination of a life well lived.

Walter Naegle was Rustin’s life partner from 1977 until his death a decade later. As executor and archivist for the Bayard Rustin estate, Naegle continues to promote Rustin’s legacy by organizing programs and providing materials for books and exhibits on Rustin’s amazing life. Rustin’s biography is told in the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin and books such as Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by historian John D’Emilio. The book "I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters", edited by Michael Long was a 2013 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.  A chapter on Bayard Rustin by Patricia Nell Warren is included in the 2015 book “The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism.”

In the image at the top of this post, Rustin and Naegle hold hands as an interracial gay couple on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was created by artist Ryan Grant Long for his “Fairy Tales” series of gay historical figures. For more on Long, see my previous post Artist paints history’s gay couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long. The second image was created by Portland artist Sean J. Randall. He adds rainbow colors to Rustin’s mug shot to emphasize his gay pride. Thanks to both artists for permission to share their work at the Jesus in Love Blog.
Related links:
Bayard Rustin at Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife

Walter Naegle, Activist Bayard Rustin’s Partner, On Rustin’s Enduring Legacy (Lambda Literary)

For Bayard Rustin’s partner, an effort to preserve legacy (Washington Post)

Bayard Rustin: One of the Tallest Trees in Our Forest by Irene Monroe (Huffington Post)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


Mitch Gould said...

Sainthood is a devilishly (if you will) nuanced accusation, especially in regard to a Quaker. (Paradoxically enough, there is a book called Quaker Saints, but perhaps the exception proves the rule.) I am quite confident that Friend Bayard would quickly, modestly, and conclusively object to being called a saint, for innumerable reasons, but ultimately because at the heart of the Quaker way, we strongly dissent from Christianity's longstanding sacred-profane dichotomy. Walt Whitman, our greatest exponent, swore, "The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer . . . And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels." On the other hand, despite the accusation of sainthood in the essay title, the post itself is a perfectly serviceable piece of biography that does not make any extravagant claims. I suspect that generally, in practice, your use of "saint" is actually just a signifier of the great respect and reverence we owe the great humanitarians among our tribe. And you know what? That's OK!!

Kittredge Cherry said...

I LOVE your comment! The Walt Whitman quotes are precious! You are right that I use the word “saint” loosely to signify “the great respect and reverence we owe the great humanitarians among our tribe.” Like the Quakers, I want to dissolve the boundary between sacred and profane. Part of my approach is to expand the meaning of sainthood, democratizing it so that “sainthood” encompasses many more people than have been officially consecrated by the church hierarchy. In the New Testament, Paul used the word “saint” to refer to every member of the Christian community, a practice continued by MCC founder Troy Perry. One of my memories from working with him was that whenever he wrote a letter to MCC members, he addressed it as "Dear Saints." We always got back some responses from people protesting, "I'm not a saint!" But to Troy, we are all saints.