Gay Rights,  Racism,  Stateside

Where’s Bayard Rustin’s statue?

This is a cross-post by Paul Canning

It is especially pleasing to see as part of the remembrance of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom the rehabilitation of Bayard Rustin, a lost gay hero or a lost hero full-stop.

As, of all people, Robert Turner of Log Cabin Republicans put it in the Washington Blade:

It is important that we in the gay community observe and honor our heroes of all nationalities, races, and genders. Rustin deserves a place in the annals of history right next to Frank Kameny and Harvey Milk.

Rustin was a gay liberationist, a socialist, a civil rights leader and a pacifist. And he was the March’s organiser. A week after the March it was he who was on the cover of Life Magazine, not MLK.

His leadership almost didn’t happen. After being jailed as a ‘conscientious objector’ in World War II, and jailed again in the 1950s after being caught having sex with two men in a car, and having briefly been a communist, it is to their credit that MLK and other civil rights leaders overruled objections to Rustin as organiser. This was despite three weeks before the March on Washington, segregationist senator Strom Thurmond entering into the congressional record a picture of “pervert” Rustin talking to King while King was in a bathtub.

Gary Younge, who has a new book on the March (I’ve posted video of a fascinating interview with Younge after the jump), quotes Roy Wilkins of the NAACP saying:

I don’t want you leading that march on Washington, because you know I don’t give a damn about what they say, but publicly I don’t want to have to defend the draft dodging. I know you’re a Quaker, but that’s not what I’ll have to defend. I’ll have to defend draft dodging. I’ll have to defend promiscuity. The question is never going to be homosexuality, it’s going to be promiscuity and I can’t defend that.

In 1960, shamefully, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem, had threatened that he would say King was having an affair with Rustin unless he cut him out of the top civil rights leadership, his inner circle. King complied.

According to John D’Emilio, author of ‘Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin’, Rustin had expected that he would be defended.

When he wasn’t defended, it was — it was painful. It was very painful. And he spent a couple of years, mostly — in the early ’60s, mostly involved in the peace movement rather than in the civil rights movement because of that rupture. And it’s the March on Washington that brought him back into the center of things.

It was Rustin that had schooled King in organisation, says D’Emilio. Rustin began organising ‘Freedom Rides’ in the 1940s: “Rustin, with 15 years of experience, you know, breaking the law nonviolently, went down to Montgomery, Alabama, introduced himself to Dr. King, and began a process of mentoring and tutoring someone who was clearly destined to be a great leader.”

Rustin, with A. Philip Randolph, had wanted to organise a ‘March for Jobs and freedom’ in 1941, 23 years before the 1963 March. This was canned after FDR ordered an end to discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies.

MLK was not the only one though to have trouble with Rustin’s remarkable, for its time, open homosexuality. According to Michael G. Long, editor of ‘I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters’: “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.”

Economic justice

Rustin was one of many socialists involved in the March and it is disappointing to see much of the anniversary coverage focused solely on King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, forgetting that the March was just as much about economic justice as it was for equality. Four of the March’s ten demands were about economic justice, such as a national minimum wage, and also “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, Negro and white, on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” Here is Rustin reading the demands at the Lincoln Memorial:

Adds 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.

Although, writes Gene Demby, a report released by the Census Bureau for the March’s anniversary shows enormous progress for blacks in income, poverty levels and education:

Despite those dramatic gains, the economic picture over the last 50 years for blacks has been a mixed bag: incontrovertible, substantial progress — a lot of it due in part to policies the march helped enshrine — while some troubling disparities remain stubbornly in place.

Aisha C. Moodie-Mills and Preston Mitchum of the Centre for American Progress argue that Rustin offers another legacy, one for the LGBT movement, that economic justice should be as central as equality, just as it was at the March on Washington:

Contrary to the myth of gay affluence, the LGBT community is economically insecure. After controlling for other factors known to influence the likelihood of being in poverty, same-sex couples and LGBT people are more likely than their non-LGBT counterparts to be poor. Within the LGBT community, women, couples with children, and black LGBT people have been shown to be particularly vulnerable. Women in same-sex couples, for example, are nearly twice as likely as married different-sex couples to be among the working poor.

They point out that in 2013:

Black men in same-sex relationships are more than six times as likely to be in poverty than white men in same-sex couples—18.8 percent to 3.1 percent, respectively—and black women in same-sex relationships are three times more likely to be poor than white women in same-sex relationships—17.9 percent to 5.1 percent, respectively.

Rustin’s grand vision

Rustin’s central role as a philosopher in the movement insisting on Ghandian non-violence and on the need for integration, not segregation, is shown in him being the one who took the debate to Malcolm X, video of which I also post after the jump. Says Long:

Bayard certainly had a grand vision. As an openly gay, African American, pacifist, socialist activist with roots in communism, he could see the interconnections of sufferings caused by various prejudices and discriminations. And because of this, he insisted on practicing coalition politics. While he understood the frustration and anger of individuals wanting to “go it alone,” he also believed that “frustration politics” does nothing constructive. What we need to do, he said, is to start building coalitions with like-minded people, including those in power, around the grand ideas of equality and justice for all. Bayard was the first to encourage King to build coalitions with labor and political liberals. And he was right about this — coalition politics centered on achieving rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone is the path to achieving our unique goals. As he put all this, we need to move “from protest to politics.”

According to Arch Puddington (who worked as an aide to Rustin) from Freedom House, for which Rustin worked during his last two decades, because of his opposition to linking the civil rights movement to the anti-Vietnam war cause, Rustin became “a pariah to the new breed of radical black personalities, who increasingly turned away from nonviolence, integration, and coalition-building while embracing black nationalism, Black Power, and (at least rhetorically) the use of violence.”

Gay Liberation

It is also disappointing to see little mention in anniversary coverage of Rustin’s role after the 70’s, in his last two decades, as a supporter of the Gay Liberation Movement, although he wasn’t really publicly outspoken until the 1980s: In 1986, just before his death, he gave a speech ‘The New Niggers Are Gays’:

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 “niggers” 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.

Regarding his late joining in such public statements, Michael Bronski, in his interview with Long, points out that Rustin was a product of his times, seeing sexuality as a ‘personal issue’, and compares Rustin to Susan Sontag who was lesbian, and not closeted, “but never really came out and had little to say about LGBT rights”. As Long points out though, Rustin did influence the Gay Liberation movement, because it was so heavily influenced by the civil rights movement Rustin had helped shape.

Rustin said of the Stonewall riot, where some reportedly chanted “We shall overcome!”:

That was the beginning of an extraordinary revolution, similar to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in that it was not expected that anything extraordinary would occur. As in the case of the women who left the Russian factory, and in the case of Rosa Parks who sat down in the white part of the bus, something began to happen, people began to protest. They began to fight for the right to live in dignity, the right essentially to be one’s self in every respect, and the right to be protected under law. In other words, people began to fight for their human rights. Gay people must continue this protest.

As Turner puts it the documentary about Rustin, ‘Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin’, “should be required viewing for everyone in the [LGBT] community, right along with ‘Before Stonewall’ and ‘Milk’.”

Rustin’s rehabilitation will continue as he has been posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor by President Obama. He is the last of the main civil rights leaders to receive this honour. Rustin has a few memorials. There is a plaque in a New York City park and schools in New York and West Chester named after him. He is on the walk in Chicago of gay leaders. A University gives out an award in his name. But despite his stature, no statue. Maybe that will now change.

Please go to Paul’s blog for more video footage of Rustin

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