Sep 9, 2013

Bayard Rustin and The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

As I sit here, fifty years after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I think, of course, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream that one day we, as Americans, would not be judged, “not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.” We have come a long way, but we have far to go. We still do not have freedom and equal access to jobs for everyone. We continue to be judged because of the color of our skin, our immigration status, our sexual orientation and/or gender identity, our social class, and because of so many different factors other than the content of our characters, our knowledge, skills and abilities. Many of us are judged on multiple factors at once, thereby multiplying the adversity and prejudice we face in our own search for jobs and freedom. There is an ever widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in our society, and it seems that the Republicans are more determined to make the gap wider and more permanent every year.

I also think of King’s assertion that, “None of us are free until all of us are free.” Speaking now as a member and officer of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia, I also remind us of this simple fact. We must continue the fight in which Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Leaders of his day participated, to make America a place where we are ALL judged by the content of our character, and by our knowledge, skills and abilities. That is why I am a part of the Democratic Party, a party that fights for ALL Americans to have access to the Dream. As my friend and long-time activist, Mandy Carter, always reminds me: “It’s about JUSTICE, not ‘just us’.”

While, like most, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” Speech, I also think of the man who, by many accounts, made the speech possible: Bayard Rustin. Bayard Rustin was a black, gay, radical, pacifist, Quaker, and was the main organizer of the March for Jobs and Freedom. He accomplished this monumental task in two months without the advantages of modern technology, and by working from index cards in his back pocket, posters on the wall of his office, and a huge contingent of dedicated volunteers including Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC Delegate to the House of Representatives). For many of you, A. Philip Randolph, the Director of the March, is a familiar name; he felt that the one man that could pull it off and organize the March was Bayard Rustin, and he was right.

It is also of note that Rustin was an early organizer of some of the first Freedom Rides, helping organize the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. He was also an early adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. on methods of non-violent protest and civil disobedience, becoming an adviser to King at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At that time King was still surrounding himself with armed guards and carrying a pistol himself. Rustin convinced King to abandon the armed protection, insisting that non-violence was not just a philosophy, but a way of life. Rustin was arrested numerous times because of his activism including during the Journey of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, NC. The movie Brother Outsider opens with Bayard saying “Our power is in our ability to make things un-workable, … our power is in our bodies… we need to put them in places so that wheels don’t turn.” He continuously put his body in places to stop the wheels of discrimination from turning.

Despite his many contributions to the Civil Rights movement, many people haven’t heard of Bayard Rustin. This is in part due to the fact that he was an unapologetically, openly gay man in a time when that was simply unheard of. Rachelle Horowitz, one of Rustin’s long-time aides, said in the movie Brother Outsider that Rustin didn’t even know there was a closet. I have had the great pleasure in the last couple of years to play a small part in bringing Rustin’s legacy forward here in Virginia, working with Mandy Carter, co-founder of SONG, and co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition, on the Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemoration Project. This project has shown the movie Brother Outsider and sponsored numerous discussions here in the Richmond area as well as throughout the United States.

Every time I see the movie and read about Rustin, I learn something new and I am reminded of the intersecting aspects of our work. Rustin was the epitome of an activist, from the time he was a teen organizing protests in his hometown of West Chester, PA until his death in 1987. In his later years, his sights turned to the struggle for LGBT equality, but his struggle was constantly informed by his Quaker heritage as an equality minded pacifist. He was asked in 1986 to contribute to a work on gay black men. Rustin declined, but his reply is an eloquent summary of the underpinnings of his philosophy on life: “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of the family are equal…” Rustin lived this belief and fought for this belief throughout his life. He was a Pacifist War Resister and anti-nuclear protester; he fought against poverty and inequality, not only in the United States but across the world, all informed by his belief in “one human family.”

I could take the time to tell you much more about Bayard Rustin’s life work, but instead I urge you to find out more about him. Recently, in part because of the work of the National Black Justice Coalition, there has been renewed interest in Rustin’s life and work. I find it appropriate that Rustin will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year, 50 years after the March on Washington. President John F. Kennedy established the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the fall of 1963, 50 years ago, just months after the 1963 March on Washington. This year we not only commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March with a renewed call for Freedom and Equality for All, but President Barack Obama is also recognizing Bayard Rustin posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which will be accepted by his partner Walter Naegle in the November ceremony. The citation in the White House Press Release announcing this year’s nominees stated:

“Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An adviser to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several fights for equal rights.”

One of the rights that was fought for, was the right to vote. This year it is essential that we go to the ballot boxes and vote for equality minded candidates, so that we can, in Virginia, take further steps towards ensuring access to Jobs and Freedom for all, instead of taking a step backwards, towards disenfranchisement. Support the Democratic statewide candidates and Democratic candidates locally!