To Be Gay, Black, Brilliant (and Largely Unknown) in America: The Bayard Rustin Story

“The Great Man Theory of History” holds that nothing much advances in human life absent the seismic shifts created by uniquely talented, intelligent, and charismatic leaders who attract enough followers to help them enact their vision for a great cause or achievement.

Whether in politics, science, business or the arts, great (wo)men serve as heroic inspirations or “Living light-fountains,” in the words of 19th century Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, who first propagated the “Great Man Theory” in his 1840 work, “Heroes,  Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History.” 

Subsequent philosophers and historians have debated the merits and applications of Carlyle’s theory ever since, but almost no one doubts the influence of individual leaders who meet the challenges of their moment in history and shape it in lasting ways.

His was a Quaker- and Gandhi-inspired humanist vision of non-violent revolution in the service of justice and peace for all God’s creatures, built on persuasion, inspiration, and ultimately, love.

One such figure in recent American history is Bayard Rustin, who supplied much of the philosophical and organizational foundations of the Civil Rights Movement throughout the mid-20th century. But there was a hitch on his journey to becoming a “Great Man.”

Because of his more or less overt homosexuality, Rustin had to remain largely in the background as the movement gathered itself into the potent, history-making phenomenon it became through the 1950s-60s. Which means you can be excused—along with multi-millions of your fellow Americans—if you have barely even come across his name until now.

Fortunately, two films—one a dramatization of his life recently debuted by Netflix, the other a decade-old documentary available on DVD and streaming from public libraries—cast a bright light on the 75 years that Rustin bestrode American life with the kind of outsized passion, compassion, energy, intelligence and verve that often characterize great human beings.

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That Rustin accomplished what he did in relative historical anonymity (until now) only adds to the complex role he played as a kind of happy warrior of the Civil Rights Movement. Tireless in his insistence on racial equality and shrewd in his dealings with both friend and foe, he possessed a kind of preternatural gift for organizing and inspiring legions of supporters.

Some 250,000 of those supporters responded to his call for the historic March on Washington in 1963, a plan he had incubated and promoted for decades to his mostly skeptical movement associates.

The march is mostly famous now for both the huge (and let us remember, peaceful) crowd it welcomed to the nation’s capital and for MLK’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech that capped off the festivities. But both films posit the march as largely Rustin’s baby, inspired by the renowned black labor leader A. Philip Randolph as far back as 1941 but soon abandoned as potentially backfiring and risky.

Rustin had dreamt of it ever since and finally convinced enough movement leaders to try to bring it to fruition two decades on. But given the compromising factor of Rustin’s sexuality, King became its most public face and the still active Randolph its “director.”

Rustin was offered a “deputy” post out of the media loop, despite his fingerprints being all over the event from its first organizational meetings till its triumphant conclusion.

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Colman Domingo gives Netflix’s “Rustin” a star turn in the title role of the 2023 biopic directed by George C Wolfe. Coming across Rustin in his own college studies, Domingo knew “a little bit more than most people,” he told Terry Gross in an NPR interview.  But he came to learn quite a bit more once he took on the role that has inspired early and deserved talk of an Academy Award nomination.

His performance becomes all the more laudable when one views the 2012 Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer documentary, “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.” The 83-minute film shows us abundant real-life footage of Rustin, the era’s historic events, and multiple talking-head contemporaries, all of it revealing Rustin as every bit the volcanic force of nature, intelligence and good intentions that Domingo portrays to such devastating effect.

In both films, we see a Rustin of tremendous self-possession, aware of his intellectual, verbal and inspirational gifts, and longing to share them in the service of advancing the fortunes of his fellow African-Americans. He does so while also remaining keenly aware of the strategic need to change the white population’s hearts and minds, securing them as allies rather than adversaries in the fight for equal justice.

A third film available on You Tube shows Rustin in a spirited and fascinating 1960 debate with Malcolm X, Malcolm making the case for total separation and emigration of blacks to a new nation. Rustin counters with: “Any movement which begins by blocking out the active cooperation of the best minds—many of which are white as well as black—is fighting a losing battle.”

Years later, Rustin’s nephew tells the documentary: “Bayard was really trying to get Malcolm to see that it’s a world community, a human community, a family in the United States. But Malcolm was talking like Marcus Garvey—separate separate separate.”

Ever the integral, non-violent humanist, Rustin says in the documentary, “I thoroughly believe that this struggle can be won without brutalization.” What it needs, he insists, is “angelic troublemakers” willing to put their bodies on the line and tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”

A key scene in the biopic has Rustin making his first visit to King’s Atlanta home, where he makes a pointed case that King’s armed bodyguard and personal possession of a gun to protect his family is seriously at odds with the movement’s purported commitment to non-violence.

King objects, Rustin coaxes, and the weaponry goes.

Former U.S. Congressman, U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young sums up the Rustin-King relationship this way in the documentary:

“Bayard was to him like an older brother. Martin Luther King was 25 years old. And he didn’t have the history and the experience that Bayard shared with him. Bayard was somebody that could talk with him on his own intellectual level and help him think through the political and social and moral dilemmas that he was facing.”

And it’s not that Rustin wasn’t concerned about the souls of white folk, too—along with Jews caught in the Holocaust and Soviet gulags, Japanese-Americans sent to World War II internment camps, gays, laborers, and oppressed, suffering populations around the world whose causes he took up throughout his life..

His was a Quaker- and Gandhi-inspired humanist vision of non-violent revolution in the service of justice and peace for all God’s creatures, built on persuasion, inspiration, and ultimately, love.

That all-inclusive perspective (the Quakerism an inheritance from his grandmother) later put him at odds with younger and more impatient black activists such as Amiri Baraka and Stokely Carmichael, who leveled charges of “sell-out” and worse at Rustin over the years. Used to the fray, he simply carried on.

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Rustin’s love of humanity writ large also included his own, long-entrenched and self-accepted sexual orientation as a gay man coming of age when homosexuality was considered an abomination by most religions and even more pointedly and tragically for his purposes, an illegality when he dared to express it.

And express it he did, freely and unashamedly to most people within his large circle, circumspect but not in denial with the outside world.

Raised as their own by his maternal grandparents as the ninth of their 11 other children in a spacious, religious and socially conscious home at which civil rights leaders often sat down to dinner, he relates in the documentary: I never said to my grandmother,I’m gay.’ But I told her that I enjoyed being with guys at the high school parties. Her reply was,I suppose that’s what you need to do.'”

And so he did, at least in terms of his love interests the rest of his life, even though many women commentators in the documentary testify to Rustin’s handsomeness and infectious personality—and a singing voice “like a mockingbird,” in the words of one of his neighbors who grew up with and admired him the rest of her life.

Also for the record: his high school football teammate in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a white man named John Rodgers, looks back more than half a century later and says,

“I first met Bayard on this field. He played the left tackle. And I played right guard. And in the practice games, it was my job to take Bayard out. We never made any yardage on my account because Bayard was like a brick wall. He was tough. But he was the greatest person to recite classical poetry I’ve ever heard.”

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Still, like many gay men forced onto the margins of the dominant culture (and marginalized all the more by his blackness), he made a near gift to enemies of the Civil RIghts Movement in 1953 by being caught in a sexual encounter with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, California. He was 41 years old, the men were in their 20s, and under the laws of the era, he served 50 days in jail and had to register as a sex offender.

Arguably the worse outcome was it gave the likes of notorious segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond the opportunity he had always relished to derail or at least forestall the entire Civil RIghts Movement by linking it to the “perversion” practiced by one of its leaders. That attempt, as we know, ultimately failed, but it was not for lack of trying.

For his part, Thurmond had the entire arrest report read into the Congressional Record, there to take its place in history alongside Rustin’s longtime FBI surveillance record (“The American Consul General at Bombay, India reported to the US State Department that Rustin, who has been arrested numerous times, spoke very unfavorably, and in an inflammatory manner, regarding racial conditions in the United States“) and a rap sheet that included multiple arrests for non-violent civil disobedience.

In one scene from 1942 depicted in “Rustin,” he refuses a bus driver’s order to take a seat at the back. The police are called and Rustin is beaten savagely (losing an incisor tooth that he never repaired in homage and memory to the stand he took). Later, he offers this about the incident in a newspaper interview:

“As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it, whereupon its mother said, ‘Don’t touch a nigger.’ If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, ‘They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.’ I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, I owe it to that child, that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that. It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

For that and countless other activities that helped better the lot of dispossessed people in his own beloved-and-forgiven nation and many others around the globe, Bayard Rustin is now getting his long delayed but finally full measure of respect. From all indications in the historical record, it couldn’t happen to a nicer and more effective guy.

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Rustin head shot and Rustin-King photos from historical archives

March on Washington photo original black and white negative by Warren K. Leffler, August 28, 1963, colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. https://www.loc.gov/resource/ds.04417/

10 comments to To Be Gay, Black, Brilliant (and Largely Unknown) in America: The Bayard Rustin Story

  • Barbara Leahy  says:

    Thanks Andrew for covering this film. We watched it and I think Rustin was well portrayed. Again, you have chosen a great recording to emphasize the subject, Louis Armstrong, one of my all time favorites, though I was not familiar with Go Down Moses.
    Again, thanks for giving us your well researched perspective on one of the unsung heroes in the struggle for justice.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      My distinct pleasure as always, Barbara. I had only sketchy outlines of Rustin’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, so taking a slightly deeper dive here led to multiple of those delicious “Oh, wow!” moments that make this venture worthwhile, even after all these years. Thanks for coming along on the ride!

    • Kevin Feldman  says:

      Thanks Andrew! I consider myself reasonably well informed re: U.S. history and I had never heard of Rustin! I echo Barbara’s comments and have added Rustin to our “must see” list. Humbled once again by the realization of how much there is to learn!! Watching Good Grief, the new film by Daniel Levy (of Schitts Creek fame, he wrote, directed & stars in the film), my wife and I both commented on how “ no big deal” it was watching the leading male actors (Levy is gay) hug & kiss. While far from perfect, there is no doubt our world has come a long way in terms of gender issues in a relatively short time!

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        OK, you indicating you’d never even heard of him confirms my suspicion he may just be the most under-reported story in civil rights history, so I’m all the more glad for him and his legacy that the oversight is beginning to be corrected. Also very happy you saw the Levy movie, which we just did a nite or two after Rustin—followed by Oppenheimer yesterday; a true embarrassment of riches…

        I think Levy is just a fine all-around human being, and his work seems to always strike just the right notes between grief and joy, comedy and drama, sentiment and sentimentality. I’ve also noted the normalization, if you will, of physical affection between male actors–used to engender an “Oh wow…” and in my own case, a slight queasiness even though I have long been 100% on board with it in the abstract. Now, meh—I feel about it pretty much as I do when watching hetero sex on screen—”Fine, show me a little if you feel you need to, but really, I can easily live with an embrace and then a quick cut to a quivering flower; I take your point!”

  • David Moriah  says:

    Well here I am again! Always a pleasure to read your entries, and thanks for reading my Caring Bridge blog! I guess I’m at least a little bit more informed as I knew a bit about Rustin before this, but you inspired me to dig deeper and watch one or both films. So darn much to watch these days. Doesn’t give me much time to read books!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Good to see your name pop up here, David, especially in connection with this topic. Not surprised to hear of your at least passing familiarity with Mr. Rustin, so all I can say is that much pleasure awaits you with a deeper dive! If you asked me to select one as the must-see, I would only say it’s a perfect 50-50 coin toss, same basic topic, different approach, both wonderful—so you’d better see them both and then we can talk more about the man & his times! Be well, all righty?

  • Deanna  says:

    I’m another one who had never heard of Bayard Rustin before and wonder whether he’s ever made it into a high school or college textbook. I don’t know about that, but I did find a Bayard Rustin High School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, his hometown. It opened in 2006. Nice!

  • David Jolly  says:

    Andrew, thanks for covering these two films. I’ve only seen the documentary so far but look forward to watching the dramatization.

    When I taught at North Carolina Central University (for those who aren’t familiar with the school, it’s an historically Black university in Durham), I served as faculty advisor to their LGBT student organization COLORS from 2000 till I retired in 2016. Why did an old white guy end up in that position? Because it was too hard for Black LGBT faculty (and there were quite a few) to be out on campus – too much homophobia to contend with (both external and internalized) . It was easier for me as a white gay guy to assume that role – fewer cultural and behavioral expectations of me. So for a while, it was just me, but for last 6 years or so a brilliant straight black female ally co-advised the group with me. (I have to add, however, that things are changing. Support for LGBT students is more overt among faculty and administration these days, COLORS now has a prominent office in the new Student Union Building, and a large rainbow flag in its window can’t be missed as you walk by the Union.)

    I provide all this background information because I think it speaks to how remarkable it was for Bayard Rustin to have done all he did in the Civil Rights movement 60 years ago (!) as a gay man who didn’t hide or deny his orientation. Granted he was kept in the background (which is why so many folks have never heard of him), but MLK kept him close, greatly valued his counsel, and refused to dismiss him despite many advising him to do so.

    Over the years we showed the documentary about Rustin a few times to COLORS and once to the larger university community, thanks to the amazing Black lesbian activist, nationally known community organizer, and Durham resident Mandy Carter, who brought it to our attention and then gave us a copy. Mandy has been on a campaign for years to get the Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp in Rustin’s honor. Many others have signed on to that campaign, and they hope the release of the docudrama will give their efforts a boost. (That Barack and Michelle Obama are executive producers of the film can’t hurt.) Anyone who’d like to send a letter in support of the campaign can do so at the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee website – https://about.usps.com/who/csac/#overview.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    In college, I wrote a paper on A. Phillip Randolph, one of the most important individuals in the forefront of the civil rights movement. He wore a number od hats: president of the “Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters”, editor of the socialist magazine “The Messenger”, leading figure in convincing President Truman to integrate the armed forces, and organizer of a number of marches, including the one in 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Bayard Rustin was his right and left hand man throughout. However, I had no idea Netflix created a film on Rustin. For me, it will be interesting to see how Randolph is portrayed in it. Drew, thanks for being my TV guide!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Deanna, first, I’m very glad to be the go-between for you & Mr. Rustin. And how very cool he got a school in his name in his hometown. I am certain he would be deeply honored and would surely have delivered a helluva speech at the ceremony!

    David, I’m very pleased to hear from someone in the thick of things through such a tumultuous era. So interesting that you were the “safe” choice to fill the role you did. Logical, but kind of head-spinning at the same time…I well remember when the 2008 gay marriage ban in California was hotly debated all over but with particular complexity in the black community, which on one level should have been a natural ally for gays but which also harbored its own homophobic elements, while some black voices also thought of it in more or less zero sum terms—that gay liberation would somehow shift attention from black liberation, rather help reinforce it. Complex currents running through that relationship, all the more so in light of the fact that they were hardly balkanized communities, blacks and other people of color being well-represented in the gay community as well. Yet for all that, look at what has happened since California voters (California!) voted to ban gay marriage—a mere 15 years ago. Talk about head-spinning!

    Robert, one of the welcome subplots of the Rustin film was learning more about Randolph’s role in the civil rights movement. Pretty impressive that the march was his original idea when he served as a labor leader in 1941, and more than 20 years later, he was still a powerhouse in both civil rights and the labor movement. Such longevity is hard to come by in those hothouse environments. One person who doesn’t come off well at all is Adam Clayton Powell. He was his own kind of powerhouse, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. Have fun with the film!

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