Sixty years ago this week, 250,000 people came together for the historic March on Washington, best remembered, of course, for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. While various civil rights leaders including King have remained in the spotlight through various books, films, records, and projects dedicated to their legacies, one trailblazer is on the precipice of finally getting his due: Bayard Rustin.
The architect of the groundbreaking march, Rustin was a Black gay man who dove head first into the fight for civil rights, helping to promote ideals like criminal justice reform, war resistance, livable minimum wages and more. In Michael G. Long’s new book, a variety of contributors come together to examine Rustin from all angles: his upbringing with his grandparents in West Chester, Pennsylvania, his ventures as a well-traveled pacifist, his work alongside fellow titans of the civil rights movement and his life as a gay man many years before the fight for LGBTQ+ rights saw the progress we enjoy now.
Long, who has written frequently about civil rights, nonviolent protests, gender and sexuality, as well as edited works including “42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” and “Unstoppable: How Bayard Rustin Organized the 1963 March on Washington,” sees this time as a special moment for the late civil rights figure.
“I think he is really emerging on his own right now which is really good to see,” Long explained. “For many years, those who knew Rustin sort of saw him as a victim of gay oppression. He was somebody who was definitely kept in the shadows by civil rights leaders including Dr. King. Journalists and historians followed suit and they didn’t pay attention to him very much.”
The tides began to change for Rustin’s legacy, however, with Daniel Levine’s 2000 book “Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement” as well as 2003’s “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin” by John D’Emilio, Long said. With Long’s new book and Netflix’s upcoming movie based on Rustin’s life starring Colman Domingo, Rustin is getting a major moment of reflection and for many, introduction.
“I am very pleased to see him coming out of the shadows and I don’t think that anybody deserves it more than Rustin,” Long said. “He was certainly the brilliant strategist of the civil rights movement. He once said that Dr. King ‘couldn’t organize a group of vampires to go to a bloodbath,’ and in many ways that’s true.”
As Long’s book eloquently spells out, King was the visionary of the movement, while the actual organizing fell almost mainly on its key strategist, Rustin. “There’s a big difference between dreaming and envisioning, and making that dream and vision happen,” Long added. “He turned Dr. King’s visions into reality. He is past overdue to come out of the shadows and there is no better time than now to see that happen.”
A particularly inspiring contributor to the upcoming book is Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last years of his life. Naegle said Rustin’s sexual orientation and (at the time) radical beliefs specifically affected his legacy and work in the civil rights movement. He fondly recalled, though, how the late Congressman John Lewis accepted Rustin completely for who he was compared to his elder counterparts in the movement.
“In some ways it makes sense that John appreciated him and worked closely with him, because John was a generation or two younger than the others,” Naegle explained. “Young people are always a little more edgy and radical than the establishment figures … when you’re heading an organization like the NAACP or the National Urban League, even the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), you have a constituency that you have to report to.”
Many younger people worked closely alongside Rustin on the March, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, Courtland Cox and Rachelle Horowitz, who recently opened up about their experience in a recent piece for The Washington Post on the 60th Anniversary of the March.
“They were in their early 20s at the time,” Naegle explained. “They liked the idea of somebody who was edgy and radical and willing to get arrested and go to jail for the cause.”
“Now that we’re 36 years after Bayard died, we are of course getting the civil rights history but we are getting a fuller picture of who he was,” he added when discussing Long’s new book. “Especially at a time when democracy is under threat, voting rights and LGBTQ rights are under threat, the fullness of Bayard’s vision in terms of working for human rights beyond just the struggle for African American rights I think will come out and be more fully appreciated. Michael’s book helps push that agenda forward.”
Naegle’s powerful essay in the book, “The Legacy of Grandmother Julia Rustin,” details Rustin’s close relationship with his late grandmother who influenced many aspects of his life while also guiding him through various stages. “I was able to pull together enough information to give people a sense of who she was and her tremendous impact on Bayard. She was always the one that he credited with being the most important influence in his development.”
Naegle was also influential, as Long pointed out in the conversation, in Rustin’s eventual public support of LGBTQ+ rights later in his life. “People give me credit for that and I’m not quite sure I deserve all of it, but I think what I can be credited for is that I certainly didn’t stand in the way,” Naegle said, explaining that he encouraged him when Rustin would ask for advice in joining the cause.
“I think it helped him to have a supportive partner by his side … we had a very happy 10 years together. I think before that his being gay had always been weaponized, he was beaten over the head with it all the time, so I think having some stability in that period made him more comfortable about coming forward and talking about his experiences as a gay man.”
As Long and Naegle look forward to the release of the book, they both shared their hopes as the public and culture at large continue to explore Rustin’s indisputable impact and legacy.
“I think one the beautiful parts of Rustin’s legacy is the hope that he left with us,” Long explained. “This was someone who was kept in the shadows and fought his way out. This was someone who lost campaign after campaign … and yet he continued on. His life was built on hope and continuing the fight no matter what.”
“He always did it with a sense of humor,” Naegle added. “He was very committed to nonviolence. I am not saying he never got angry … but he did not walk around being angry 24/7 at all the injustices in the world. There were plenty of them to be angry about, but he also was capable of seeing the beauty in the world and the beauty in human nature that could be transformed if you went about things nonviolently and in a generous, loving spirit.”
“Bayard Rustin: A Legacy of Protest and Politics” is set for release on Sept. 26 from NYU Press. Another book Long penned alongside Yohuru Williams, “More Than a Dream: The Radical March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” is available now via Macmillan and also highlights Rustin’s legacy.
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