Bayard Rustin Speaks

My post today is unique because today is unique: the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Bayard Rustin, an unsung organizer of the march and the movement, was interviewed by my friend Mark Bowman for the quarterly publication Open Hands in 1987, the year of Rustin’s death. As subsequent editor of the magazine, I republished the interview in 1999, and I publish these excerpts again today in the belief that Rustin's voice needs to be heard:

Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality. Martin set up a committee to discover what he should do. They said that, despite the fact that I had contributed tremendously to the organization (I drew up the plans for the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and did most of the planning and fundraising in the early days), they thought that I should separate myself from Dr. King. 

This was the time when [Congressman Adam Clayton] Powell threatened to expose my so-called homosexual relationship with Dr. King.

There of course was no homosexual relationship with Dr. King. But Martin was so uneasy about it that I decided I did not want Dr. King to have to dismiss me. I had come to the SCLC to help. If I was going to be a burden I would leave—and I did. However, Dr. King was never happy about my leaving. He was deeply torn—although I had left the SCLC, he frequently called me in and asked me to help. While in 1960 he felt real pressure to fire me, in 1963 he agreed that I should organize the March on Washington, of which he was one of the leaders.

In June of 1963, Senator Strom Thurmond stood in the Congress and denounced the March on Washington because I was organizing it. He called me a communist, a sexual pervert, a draft dodger, etc. [Rustin spent two years in Lewisburg Penitentiary as a conscientious objector during WW II, later 30 days on a North Carolina chain gang for his participation in the first Freedom Ride in the South.]

The next day, Mr. A. Phillip Randolph [president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters] called all the black leaders and said, “I want to answer Strom Thurmond’s attack. But I think we ought not to get involved in a big discussion of homosexuality or communism or draft-dodging. What I want to do, with the approval of all the black leaders, is to issue a statement which says: 'We, the black leaders of the civil rights movements and the leaders of the trade union movement and the leaders of the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic church which are organizing this march have absolute confidence in Bayard Rustin’s ability, his integrity, and his commitment to nonviolence as the best way to bring about social change. He will continue to organize the March with our full and undivided support.'” He said, “If any of you are called, I do not want any discussion beyond that—Is he a homosexual? Has he been arrested? We simply say we have complete confidence in him and his integrity.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Someone came to Mr. Randolph once and said, “Do you know that Bayard Rustin is a homosexual? Do you know he has been arrested in California? I don’t know how you could have anyone who is a homosexual working for you.” Mr. Randolph said, “Well, well, if Bayard, a homosexual, is that talented—and I know the work he does for me—maybe I should be looking for somebody else homosexual who could be so useful.” Mr. Randolph was such a completely honest person who wanted everyone else also to be honest. Had anyone said to him, “Mr. Randolph, do you think I should openly admit that I am homosexual?” his attitude, I am sure, would have been, “Although such an admission may cause you problems, you will be happier in the long run.” Because his idea was that you have to be what you are....

When one is attacked for being gay it sensitizes you to a greater understanding and sympathy for others who face bigotry, and one realizes the damage that being misunderstood can do to people. It’s quite all right when people blast my politics. That’s their obligation. But to attack anyone because he’s Jewish, black, a homosexual, a woman, or any other reason over which that person has no control is quite terrible. But making my peace and adjusting to being attacked has helped me to grow.

It’s given me a certain sense of obligation to other people, and it’s given me a maturity as well as a sense of humor....

I have learned a very significant lesson from the Jewish prophets. If one really follows the commandments of these prophets, the question of being hopeful or non-hopeful may become secondary or unimportant. Because these prophets taught that God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.

Read the full text of this interview on page ten of the Fall 1999 issue of Open Hands; Image via Wikimedia Commons

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