Rediscovering the Lost History of Bayard Rustin

When thinking about 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, big names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X usually first come to mind. However, many other figures were involved in the movement and not all of their legacies appear in history textbooks.

Last Friday, scholars and activists, including Jared Leighton, Ph.D., Walter Naegle and John D’Emilio, Ph.D., visited Wittenberg’s Shouvlin Center in conjunction with Wittenberg’s English Professor Rick Incorvati’s “Writing for Social Change” class to bring light to a civil rights activist too often forgotten: Bayard Rustin.

Rustin’s greatest accomplishment included organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963, which advocated for the social, economic and political of rights of African Americans and is where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The march resulted in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Historians and social scientists cite Rustin’s sexuality—as an openly gay man—as his greatest obstacle in the face of his opponents and the main reason his legacy is often forgotten. Other civil rights activists believed that Rustin’s sexuality would undermine the movement and although Rustin hoped to connect the black civil rights movement with t h e fight for gay rights, those around him feared that they would lose key forces working with them, such as churches.

Leighton, a professor of African-American and LGBTQ+ history at the University of Nebraska started off the lecture by reading a paper he wrote about the connections between black civil rights activists and LGBTQ+ activists in the 1960’s. He noted that LGBTQ+ people came together around the civil rights movement because of its high ideals of equal opportunities and freedom. However, gay rights activists tended to organize separately, rather than drawing civil rights networks to form a massive group.

In response to the subversion of LGBTQ+ civil rights activists in the 1960’s, “The entirety of the past is not always legible, especially when discussing oppression, ” Leighton said.

D’Emilio, author of “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” also noted the difficulty of honoring lesser-known activists like Rustin.

“The way history is put out there, only the biggest names come out to us unless we’re actively searching for people like Bayard Rustin,” he said.

D’Emilio also discussed the difficulty in “coming out of the closet” during the 1960’s.

“It was nearly impossible to be “out” in the 1960’s,” D’Emilio said. “’Coming out” was a key phrase, but it meant only allowing other LGBT people know you’re gay.”

The discussion and responses to the essay were followed by Q & A session with the audience that included questions like, “How did you find a way around the family and church being for racial equality but against LGBT rights?” and “How do we increase solidarity between Civil Rights Groups and LGBT activists?”

Naegle, Rustin’s former partner, answered from his first-hand experiences.

“The response to the church and family is alternative institutions: alternative definitions of family and relationships as well as the creation of new churches,” Naegle said. “Rustin knew nonviolence and had the practical experience that King didn’t have, but sometimes King found it difficult that Rustin was gay.”

Naegle connected the question of solidarity to one of the most prominent civil rights movements today, Black Lives Matter.

“We need open communication between groups along mutual causes and true inclusiveness to make sure everyone has their voice heard,” Naegle said. I could see it happening in BLM, considering two of its three founding members identify as queer. It’s intersectional in its founding.”

The closing question from an audience member asked if Rustin, as a leader in non-violent change particularly, felt that civil disobedience undermined the cause of civil rights.

“From protest to politics, no matter what movement, we will never win on our own. We wouldn’t be in this situation in first place if we could, and that was Rustin’s underlying principle,” Naegle said.

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