Honoring Bayard Rustin

Recently, I joined Point Foundation Scholars, Alumni, board members and staff, at the Scholar & Alumni Leadership Conference (SALC) in Washington D.C.  We were there just a few weeks before the 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963.   This was The March where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I have a dream” speech.  This march attracted thousands from near and far, with estimated attendance of 200,000 to 300,000 people.  Imagine planning a march that big, coordinating transportation, recruiting protesters, managing the logistics and safety of the crowd—all without cell phones or internet service.  Bayard Rustin was the leader who organized all of these details.  Rustin was also an openly gay, African-American man.

Brother Outsider Film Screening

Co-Director & Producer of the film Brother Outsider Bennett Singer, Bayard Rustin Estate Executor and Archivist Walter Naegle, HRC Youth & Campus Engagement Program Director Sultan Shakir, DC for Democracy Outreach Chair Keshini Ladduwahetty

While at SALC, we screened Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin which detailed Rustin’s role not only in the organization of The March but also as a courageous leader of non-violent activism, instrumental in the Civil Rights movement.   Rustin conveyed charisma and charm on screen, even in old black and white photos.  And he never hid who he was, despite the precarious political position that being gay created at that time.

The backlash and fear that The March on Washington provoked at that time is eerily familiar today.  Many politicians at the time expressed concern that The March would make the rest of the world think that Americans didn’t have freedom, and they tried to assure listeners that “The negroes in this country own more refrigerators and more automobiles than they do in any other country.” Rustin was attacked by these politicians, described as a sexual pervert.  And Rustin rightly named their actions: “The Senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement.  He will not get away with this!”

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin

Despite these attacks, The March was a stunning success.  We still feel the impact of The March 50 years later.  We still benefit from the courage and creativity of the work of Rustin, King and thousands of others who stood together and stood up.  And for those of us who identify as queer, lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans*(LGBTQ) or not straight in some way, it is meaningful to remember that we are part of this history.  Rustin is a reminder that LGBTQ history is intertwined with all of our histories.  Our stories are intertwined with the stories of the United States.  We are a part of all racial, ethnic and socio-economic communities.  Thank you to the Brother Outsider team for making this history visible.  Fifty years later, President Obama recognized Rustin’s significant contributions by naming him as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Fifty years after The March we have cause to celebrate and cause to continue fighting.   Fifty years later, Freedom is still a dream worth fighting for.

This post was written by Walter M. Decker Point Scholar Nicole Robert
Learning about other people’s stories, and understanding the power of personal stories to create community connections and shape people’s lives, has always been a passion for Nicole Robert. Nicole earned an M.A. in Museology from the University of Washington and is now pursuing a PhD in Feminist Studies. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality in U.S. history museums. Learn more about Nicole.

[Photo credit: cmh0150 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA]