An Indispensable Gay Man


[Bayard Rustin] was his own man. Wherever he was, he stood at a rakish angle to it. —Midge Decter

The truth that one truly believes is in action. . . . We will not tolerate the beating of black people any longer. We will stay in the damn streets until every Negro in this country can vote. —Bayard Rustin

A wiretap was instituted on Bayard Rustin, 340 West 28th St., New York City. Rustin is a prominent adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and a known sexual pervert. —FBI field report, November 15, 1963

On Monday, January 20 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), the Public Broadcasting Service (Channel 13 in New York) will air Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. This long-due tribute vividly brings back to life a man who deeply and brilliantly influenced the course of the civil rights and peace movements.

Because Bayard never hid that he was gay, he was abandoned, for a time, by leaders of both movements in this country. He died in 1987, and late last year, hundreds of residents of West Chester, Pennsylvania, where Rustin was born, signed petitions protesting the decision of the school board to name a new high school after him.

As the Associated Press reported on December 16, these indignant citizens “said Rustin shouldn’t be honored because he was briely a member of a Communist youth group in the 1930s, and because he was openly gay.” (Next week: the result of that protest.)

Brother Outsider, produced and directed by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, among others, for the always uncategorizable P.O.V. series, is a thoroughly honest portrait of Bayard and his tumultuous times. I knew him for most of those years, reporting for the Voice and others on his prodigious skills as an organizer. He was also a mentor for me, except when we disagreed about his silence on the Vietnam War. It was only later that I fully realized his reasons for that silence—which contrasted with the outspokenness of Martin Luther King Jr., who was severely criticized by a number of black civil rights leaders for coming out strongly against the war instead of continuing to focus only on the black agenda here.

As Igal Roodenko of the War Resisters League, where Rustin was once a key organizer, said soon after Bayard died, Rustin had come to realize, as the anti-war demonstrations mounted, that “to be free to go into any restaurant regardless of your skin color is not going to do any good if you don’t have any money. . . . He worked with A. Philip Randolph, vice president of the American Federation of Labor and head of the Sleeping Car Porters Union, to open the unions to black workers and set up apprentice training programs.”

Bayard became head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1964, training black workers to move into decent union jobs. He was convinced that organized labor could be made to join a nonviolent coalition to engage in whatever was necessary to move “from protest to politics,” encompassing blacks and others who had been powerless. But in the meantime, the AFL-CIO was for the Vietnam War, and so Bayard held his peace in more ways than one.

Much of Brother Outsider focuses on Bayard’s courageous range as a leader in nonviolent direct action. Very direct action. In 1947, he organized the first of the “freedom rides” to defy Southern segregation laws, winding up with a 22-day sentence on a black chain gang in North Carolina. His white associates were jammed into a white chain gang.

Rustin learned a great deal from A.J. Muste, the American master of nonviolent direct action, while in the peace movement’s Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1956, Bayard went to Montgomery, Alabama, soon after the Rosa Parks bus boycott began. Since the 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. had little experience in Gandhian “soul force,” Bayard became a key strategist in the bus boycott and in King’s further actions until Congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to expose Bayard as a homosexual.

In 1953, Bayard had been convicted and imprisoned in Pasadena, California, on a morals charge (homosexual behavior). When Senator Lyndon Johnson, learning that Rustin, emerging as a public figure of consequence, was planning a massive demonstration at the 1960 Democratic convention to pressure the party leadership and delegates to act on civil rights, Johnson—as reported in the documentary—ordered House leader Sam Rayburn “to stop this guy Rustin.”

Rayburn went to Adam Clayton Powell, who told the press there were “immoral elements” in the civil rights movement. Powell knew of Rustin’s 1953 arrest, and Rustin says in Brother Outsider that Powell warned King that “if he did not withdraw his support from the Rustin-led demonstration in Los Angeles, [Powell] would go to the press and say that there was a sexual affair going on between me and King. Martin was so terrified . . . he decided he would get rid of me.”

Years before, even A.J. Muste had fired Rustin from the Fellowship of Reconciliation because of the 1953 arrest.

Bayard resurged in 1963 when A. Philip Randolph asked him to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that became the largest civil rights demonstration in history. As Eleanor Holmes Norton says in Brother Outsider, “nobody assumed it could be done. They didn’t know what I knew. . . . The best organizer on the planet was planning this one.” There were 250,000 insistently present at the march, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was heard around the world.

Three weeks before the March on Washington, Strom Thurmond denounced Bayard on the Senate floor as a homosexual, draft evader, and former member of the Communist Party. It didn’t work. The march, Eleanor Holmes Norton emphasizes, “woke up America. It woke up the president [John F. Kennedy]. . . . It took the movement to a new level, and somehow, I knew it would take us to where I could not see.”

The night before the march, Malcolm X, with whom I had become friendly, shouted to me across the lobby of a Washington hotel, where he was surrounded by reporters. “Hey, Nat Hentoff,” he scoffed. “I bet you think you’re here for a real historic event! You’ve been fooled, like everybody else.” But I knew Bayard, and I knew Malcolm was wrong. To be continued.

Note: The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Yaser Hamdi can be jailed indefinitely without access to his lawyer. On to the Supreme Court.