clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Bayard Rustin: Offensive lineman for freedom

Bayard Rustin, who became a gay activist later in life, was a brilliant, charismatic, passionately courageous man who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s chief strategist and right-hand man.

By Patricia Nell Warren
Outsports.com


Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black President is a good time for refreshing our memory on LGBT figures in the black civil-rights movement. Bayard Rustin is an obvious choice – a brilliant, charismatic, passionately courageous man who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s chief strategist and right-hand man. The sports angle: Rustin started his activist career way back around 1929, when he first played high-school football. This chapter in his life is a "Remember the Titans" kind of story.

The word “activist” rolls off our tongues easily today. But in 1920s and 1930s America, taking a stand on human-rights issues automatically made you a target for the FBI. You were pegged as a communist or a socialist agitator – terms that were used as deadkt weapons against anybody who tried to challenge the status quo, whether it was race relations or unionizing or veterans’ rights.

Courtesy of "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin"
Bayard’s close-knit family was rooted in eastern Pennsylvania, in the small town of West Chester. When his mother was 17, she got pregnant out of wedlock. Bayard was born in 1912. Since his father never stepped forward to accept responsibility, Florence’s parents, Julia and Janifer Rustin, adopted the boy as their own.

Slender, intense Julia was well-educated – one of the first blacks in the county to finish high school. She worked for a prominent Quaker family and made herself visible in community service. When the NAACP was founded in 1910, Julia was a charter member. Though she belonged to the local African Methodist church, Julia was part Delaware Indian. Her family were Quakers and free people of color who had lived in Pennsylvania for generations.

From his grandmother, Bye – as he was called at home – soaked up that powerful example of community activism, as well as a keen consciousness of America’s dissenter heritage. In the mid-1600s, the pacifist Friends (as Quakers called themselves) had begun streaming to the North American colonies to escape persecution in Anglican-ruled England. After the American Revolution, Quaker leaders influenced our founders’ decision to adopt the First Amendment principle of freedom of conscience. Outraged at slavery, the Friends helped organize the “underground railroad” that enabled thousands of escaped slaves to get out of the South and establish themselves in freedom. That old escape route had run right through Bayard’s home town.

Ironically, in spite of all this history, segregation had seeped into Pennsylvania from the South. So West Chester was a city where many businesses and institutions enforced Jim Crow. As the only high school in the county, West Chester Senior High School was uneasily integrated, with a small number of blacks among its 600 students.

A Renaissance Athlete

Rustin was one of those rare students who did well at everything. He was a good-looking 6-footer, popular with both black and white students -- straight-A student, mainstay of the debating team, award-winning essayist, and outstanding singer (tenor). He even wrote poetry. In short, according to biographer John D’Emilio, he was “West Chester’s version of a Renaissance man.”

Courtesy of "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin"
Most important, Pinhead – as he was nicknamed by friends – was the best athlete in the school. At first it was just tennis, track and basketball where he beat everybody. But tennis was viewed as a pansy sport, and Bayard was already aware of his attraction to other males and worried about his masculinity. So he went out for football to prove his own manliness to himself.

With his speed and smarts, a movie script might have made him star quarterback of the West Chester Warriors. Instead Bayard chose to play offensive lineman, left tackle. In basic football strategy, all five linemen have the job of protecting the quarterback. But the two tackles have an extra-tough job, because they have to anchor the two ends of that offensive line, blocking multiple hits from opposing players and preventing them from making a blitz.

Bayard’s sheer will to use his strength and psychic force for the team’s benefit made him the Warriors’ MVP. Later a teammate remembered what it was like to run up against Pinhead in a scrimmage. He said, “I found it impossible to get by him. Sometimes, after knocking me down on my face, he would gently help me to my feet and quote a line from a poem.”

Another teammate added in, “He was the toughest hitter on the front line. I wouldn’t have expected that of a young man whose grandmother was raising him to be nonviolent. Yet I could never hit as hard as he did.”

Yet another teammate reminisced ruefully, “I never blocked him once … his bones and his muscles were like steel … he was tough.”

By his junior year, that toughness had made Bayard an all-county lineman, and won him letters in both football and track. During his senior year, 1932-33, he helped carry the track team to the state mile championship at the Penn Relays. That same year, the West Chester Warriors had a 10-game winning streak, with the local paper enthusing, “Bayard Rustin played his usual fine game at left tackle, working splendidly with left end Bruno.”

An Activist Is Born

On that extraordinary team, some strong black-white friendships were born. But off campus, the boys ran into Jim Crow. All the team members were welcome at Julia’s house. But one of Bayard’s best friends was a white boy whose parents wouldn’t let their son invite Bayard to their home. The black team members weren’t allowed in the YMCA or certain restaurants. They had to sit in the segregated balcony at the movie theater. For games out of town, the black players couldn’t stay at the same hotel as their white teammates. Some schools even refused to let their all-white teams play West Chester.

The moment came when Bayard had enough. One weekend, just before the Warriors were to play in a neighboring town, he organized his black teammates into a protest squad. They told the coach that, if they couldn’t have the same accommodations as their white teammates, they weren’t going to play. The coach buckled – though he later retaliated by holding back some track awards that the boys had earned.

After that, there was no stopping Rustin. He led his special team of protesters all over West Chester – into stores, restaurants, the YMCA. The boys were usually thrown out, but they kept trying. One of his followers remembered later, “Bayard’s determination was frightening. But we looked up to him as our leader. He was persuasive. He could sell you anything.”

Eventually Bayard was arrested for the first time in his life, for trying to sit in the white section of the movie theater.

In 1932, when Bayard graduated as class valedictorian, nobody would have predicted that he’d become a valued player in global civil-rights activism. They figured he’d be a singer, or a pro athlete … even a poet. But no local organizations made scholarships available for a talented black kid. So his grandmother Julia wangled him an out-of-town scholarship that sent him to Wilberforce in Ohio – one of the oldest black colleges in the U.S.

By then, Bayard had already had his first sexual experiences with other boys, and knew that he was gay. “I never felt any guilt,” he said later. Indeed, he took the offensive in cruising for one-time experiences. But this was something that had to be kept hidden at all costs.

A Role Model in India

In college, Rustin first started hearing about Mohandas Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer who lived on the other side of the world. Gandhi was emerging as a freedom leader, first against apartheid in South Africa, then against British colonial rule in his native India. Freedom-bent American blacks were thrilled to read about the exploits of this brown-skinned man who was fighting for people of color halfway around the world. By the end of World War II, Gandhi’s organizing had united millions of peaceful but determined Hindus and Muslims, convincing the British to grant India her independence without a fight.

For Rustin, the challenge was clear – to graft Gandhi’s concepts of pacifist non-violent activism onto the Quaker pacifism that he’d learned from Julia.

In 1937, Rustin discovered New York City, and fell in love with it. Initially, he lived with his aunt in Harlem, which had exploded into a center of music and arts creativity. His activist career started with work in the pacifist and labor movements.

From college onwards, Rustin’s long and action-packed career veered away from sports. Yet he always carried himself like an athlete – lean, graceful yet powerful, and always elegantly dressed. His 6-foot frame was impressive at the speakers’ podium.

Rustin approached everything with a keen sense of strategy that he must have honed on those football fields in eastern Pennsylvania. Arrested numerous times for both cruising and freedom protests, he was still so tough that he survived a number of brutal beatings by police. That toughness also carried him through incarceration. In 1944, federal authorities sentenced him to three years for refusing to serve in uniform during World War II. In 1947, after being arrested during a Freedom ride, Rustin did 30 days in a Southern chain gang. The experience was so horrific that the exposé he wrote for a magazine stirred up a public outcry.

In the late 1940s, the prison experience prompted Rustin to start speaking out about the cruelty and injustice that faced American homosexuals. Making no secret of his sexual orientation, he was having his first real relationship with a young white man, handsome blond Davis Platt, who was a movement co-worker. In 1947, the two of them settled down in an apartment in 124th Street in New York City. Their place became a center for artists, writers and activists.

“Bayard was fun to be with,” said Platt later. But the relationship finally foundered on Rustin’s penchant for cruising, and the two men broke up after a year.

Marching on Washington D.C.

By the 1960s, Rustin was working with emerging black leader Reverend Martin Luther King. Rustin had been pondering Gandhi’s strategies, with their foundation in Hindu spirituality. How could those principles be applied in the U.S. in a way that could draw support from liberal Christian spirituality, given the fact that ultraconservative white Christians usually supported Jim Crow? It was during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that Rustin first counseled Dr. King on non-violent activism. By 1963, he was helping King to organize that historic March on Washington that kicked the black civil-rights movement into higher gear.

Though Rustin was a compelling speaker and could have been a leader in his own right, he stayed behind the scenes. His sexual orientation had gotten negative public attention after a 1953 California arrest for “indecency.” Puritanical church people started pressuring King to get rid of the “commie queer.” He was booted out of the pacifist organization, Fellowship for Reconciliation, for which he’d worked so hard.

“After that,” comments historian E. P. Lovejoy at Epinions, “Rustin refrained voluntarily from speaking out about oppression of homosexuals because he wanted to protect the racial civil rights movement into which he had invested so much. He knew that his homosexuality, about which was never secret even when he was not outspoken, could be used against the movement. It was, especially by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and by the segregationist U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond.

“Rustin also faced enemies within the movement, chief among them Adam Clayton Powell, the U.S. Representative from Harlem. Powell sought to gain for himself a more influential position by denigrating Rustin. He threatened to leak fabricated allegations of a sexual affair between Rustin and King. Powell demanded that King distance himself from Rustin. King gave in and was rebuked by James Baldwin and others who rallied to Rustin's defense. King and Rustin worked together after that, and Rustin accompanied King to Oslo in 1964 when King received the Nobel Prize for Peace, but their friendship never fully recovered.”

Intriguingly, the positioning that Rustin accepted in the black civil-rights movement was a rerun of his positioning in high-school football. Dr. King was the quarterback who carried the ball, and Rustin was his loyal left tackle.

But Rustin was not the only homosexual in King’s organization. A lesbian friend of mine, Cherokee medicine woman Earth Thunder, recalls being one of the young workers in that organization in the late 1960s. As a Native American, she felt that King’s “I have a dream” was meant for all people of color. Earth Thunder told me: “I can recollect some joyful times with Bayard in a private gathering in Harlem, probably 1968. We were resting between pushes to get ready for the August Democratic explosion. Rustin was with some other friends and they were singing. Some were in drag. But for most of the movement, I knew little of any of the gay friends pushing the envelope.” Meaning that they were all keeping a low profile like Rustin did.

After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Rustin hurled himself into offensive-lineman work in other countries where people of color were fighting for freedom. With his counsel, he supported native leaders everywhere with their freedom movements -- in Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Haiti, El Salvador, and Grenada. He also worked for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

Finally a Gay Activist

In 1977, Rustin settled into his happiest and most enduring relationship, with a younger man named Walter Naegle. He was still lean and handsome, but with hair going powerfully white. The two settled in New York City's Chelsea district.

By then, anti-gay feeling in the U.S. had softened just enough that Rustin felt able to work openly for the LGBT cause without hurting other causes. During an effort for gay-friendly legislation in New York City, he testified at hearings and made a statement that sounds prophetic today. He said, “There are very few liberal Christians today who would dare say anything other than blacks are our brothers and they should be treated so, but they will make all kinds of hideous distinctions when it comes to our gay brothers. ... That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights.”

Sadly, many in the gay community dismissed Rustin’s efforts, considering him a Johnny-come-lately. One commentator described him as “gay, activist but sadly, not a gay activist.”

In 1987, shortly after yet another trip abroad, Rustin took ill and died. He had just turned 75. Walter Naegle continues to tend the flame of his partner’s achievements as executor and archivist for the Bayard Rustin estate.

For some years, Rustin was undeservedly forgotten by many in the LGBT movement. Yet today our younger activists are rediscovering Rustin. In the late 1990s, when I was working with LGBT students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I found that LGBT students of color were hungry to know that they had some towering historical role models like Rustin. To a black kid who was one of the school district’s student commissioners at the time, I gave a copy of a biography about Rustin. He devoured the book, and told me that he cried all the way through it.

“It’s just awesome,” the student said, “that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King’s head guy.”

Biographer John D’Emilio sums up Rustin’s life in a few deft words. He says, “Rustin displayed courage under circumstances that are terrifying to contemplate. His life reminds us that the most important stories from the past are often those that have been forgotten and that from obscure origins can emerge individuals with the power to change the world.”


Acknowledgments:

Thanks to Walter Naegle for his gracious help and helpful information. Also thanks to producer-director Bennett Singer for providing me with a DVD of "Brother Outsider," and giving permission for reproduction of the image from the film that accompanies this article.

Further reading:

Books

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, by John D’Emilio (University of Chicago Free Press, 2003).

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, edited by Devon W. Cabardo and Donald Weise (Cleis Press, 2003).

We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin, by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek Books, 2007)

Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, by Jervis Anderson (University of California Press, 1998).

Film
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Produced and directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy D. Kates . Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, broadcast on PBS’ P.O.V. series and LOGO cable network. To date the film has won 20 film festival awards.

Web pages
Bayard Rustin Fund

Video about Rustin