March 17, 1912 – Bayard Rustin
We are all one. And if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.
Mostly forgotten today, Rustin was the chief organizer for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He was a superb strategist, and he used his expertise in nonviolent direct action to assist King in shaping the African-American Civil Rights movement.
Rustin was raised in Pennsylvania by his Quaker grandparents who espoused pacifism. Rustin moved to Harlem in the 1930’s, the exciting time of the Harlem Renaissance. He paid for his New York City College tuition by singing folk music. He became an organizer for the Young Communist League in their work against racial segregation.
Rustin’s refused to register for the draft in World War II resulting in his serving three years in a federal penitentiary. Although he was arrested 23 times for nonviolent protest, he never lost his conviction that Equality should be pursued through nonviolent means.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Rustin organized nonviolent groups that became the foundation of the Civil Rights movement, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Congress Of Racial Equality, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1947, he was the architect for the Journey Of Reconciliation, the event that became the model for the Freedom Rides of the 1960s. In 1955, Rustin was instrumental in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. When he arrived in Montgomery to help with the bus boycott, there were guns inside MLK’s house and armed guards posted at his doors. Rustin persuaded King and the other boycott leaders to commit the movement to complete nonviolence.
Rustin experienced prejudice because of his controversial political positions, but also because he was a gay man. Because he was a queer, he was mostly relegated to a behind-the-scenes role in the Civil Rights Movement. In organizing the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin spent much of his time in the background. He wrote the pamphlet that explained how to get more than 200,000 people to the nation’s capital on a single day, and he figured out every logistic from the speaking order to the sound system to the number of bathrooms.
But near the end of the march, Rustin took to the podium for one of its most important, most radical, but least remembered moments. Rustin read aloud the list of the march’s “Ten Demands Of This Revolution”, right before King hand-delivered them to President John F. Kennedy.
The eighth demand was for a National Minimum Wage Act that would give all Americans a decent standard of living. Government surveys showed that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this. A 1963 wage of $2 an hour would equate to $18 today.
With the seventh demand, Rustin called for: “A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, Negro and White, on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” Even today, despite POTUS’s boasts, twice as many African-Americans are unemployed as whites.
Rustin was beautifully composed as he read his demands aloud, his aristocratic voice betraying his rural Pennsylvania roots. He was simultaneously on fire and calm. He called, in the very first March on Washington demand, for The Right To Vote, and 56 years later, this basic American right continues to be elusive. In fact, I believe that Voting Rights and Voter Suppression are the biggest issue in the coming 2020 election.
Russian meddling has been at the forefront of most political conversations in 2018 and this will be the case again this year. While the 116th Congress will most likely address the Mueller Report and its fallout, including a possible Trump impeachment, the attention should also be on voting rights and election integrity. Last year’s midterm elections and the disarray in the various local races make the case for prioritizing these issues, along with the recent revelation that Russian operatives exploited social media platforms to discourage African-Americans and other vulnerable groups from voting in the 2016 presidential election.
Voter suppression tactics have been used dating back to Reconstruction. Yet, they have been much more rampant, especially in the backdrop of the vitriolic, radicalized climate fostered by Trump and his administration. Following the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision that eviscerated many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, certain states have not hesitated to enact new laws and rules that restrict people of color from exercising their inalienable right to vote.
States like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and North Dakota have strict identification laws that largely penalize African-American, Hispanic and Native American voters. Texas even went so far as imposing voter ID requirements and restrictions on college students, a prominent Democratic voting bloc in local and national elections. Closed and changed polling locations, inoperable voting machines, and unavailable translators in immigrant-heavy communities have also contributed to voter confusion in several states that were previously subjected to federal pre-clearance before they made any changes to their voting laws or practices.
These cumulative experiences surfaced in the midterm elections, leading to longer lines at polling locations, voters being turned away, people being forced to vote via a provisional ballot, hand-counted ballots, several race recounts, and even delays in the announcement of winners.
Voter suppression was blatantly seen in the Georgia gubernatorial race between cheatin’ Republican Brian Kemp, who was ultimately elected while serving as the Secretary of State charged with administering that election, and Democrat Stacy Abrams, who is black. As Secretary of State, Kemp was accused of purging 340,000 eligible voters from the registration rolls, simply because the state couldn’t verify their existing addresses through a mailer. He also blocked the registrations of a potential 50,000 voters, mainly African-American and Hispanic, because of minor discrepancies in the spelling and spacing of their names on forms. Kemp also dismissed many absentee ballots, causing this election to be stolen by Republicans. Kemp ultimately won by fewer than 55,000 votes out of about 4 million cast.
A more egregious act of election fraud recently occurred in North Carolina, where absentee ballots were not only being requested in record numbers, but also proper absentee ballots were allegedly collected by operatives and destroyed, largely in communities of color. Since the 2016 presidential election, strict voter ID requirements, as well as changes to early voting and impromptu moves of polling locations, have negatively impacted minority voters in many states. Wisconsin imposed the same hours on all polling places, regardless of population density, which resulted in longer wait times for minority voters from larger cities. In Florida, ex-felons, whose voting rights were restored, also experienced roadblocks as they sought to vote. White Nationalists cheat.
Even Rustin’s native Pennsylvania, a state not originally subjected to the Voting Rights Act, has been attempting to curtail the right to vote. Rustin’s legacy lives not in the past, but in the present and future of America. His work linking sexual, racial, and economic rights was not only forward-thinking in 1963, but even now in 2019. Can you believe it?
We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers!
In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal Of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, to Rustin, just two months after the March On Washington celebrated its 50th anniversary. Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, accepted the honor on behalf of the love of his life. Naegal:
We were very much an ordinary couple. He was an extraordinary person, but our everyday lives were quite ordinary.
In the engrossing 2003 documentary about Rustin, Brother Outsider (available on Netflix), Naegle, who was 37-years younger than Rustin, joked that he had to come out to his mother by saying: “I’m gay, he’s black, and he’s older than you…“
Poor Rustin, in his lifetime he had to battle racists like Strom Thurmond, who served for 48 years as a Senator from South Carolina, but also black leaders like Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Both men, for different reasons, obviously, tried to out Rustin in order to ruin his political life. Powell threatened to spread a rumor that Rustin was having an affair with King. In 1953, Rustin was arrested for having sex with two men in the back seat of a car in Pasadena. Thurmond read its entire contents of his arrest documents into the Congressional Record. JFK signed off on Rustin’s phone being tapped, and Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon continued it.
It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would not have hired me … My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement.
The historical record provides only rare glimpses of King’s views on sexuality. King was probably not very comfortable with gay people in the movement, particularly with the “flamboyant nature” of Rustin’s sort of queerness. The problem for the movement to which Rustin refers were ongoing tensions within Civil Rights organizations, both because of his sexuality and because of his previous affiliations with Communist organizations. By the 1960s, conservatives had established a long history of linking LGBTQ people with the threat of communist infiltration, and accusing civil rights organizations and leaders of both in efforts to discredit them.
I never sensed that Rustin felt any shame or guilt about his queerness. That was rare in his era.
Shortly before he died 1987, at a Gay Rights rally, Rustin said:
30-years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves Gay. We recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society. You will not feed people à la the philosophy of the Reagan administration. Imagine a society that takes lunches from school children. Do you really think it’s possible for gays to get civil rights in that kind of society?