Today is Bayard Rustin’s 104th birthday. A Black, gay, nonviolent activist, and an influential strategist/tactician, Bayard began as a radical outsider, yet received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2013. Since his death in 1987, he has become more widely known than during his lifetime, and his journey continues to influence new generations of activists. Bennett and Walter were reminded of Bayard’s evolution when they met with Sir Adam Roberts, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, on his recent visit here to address the Ralph Bunche Institute. As a young man, Sir Adam — an editor of the new book Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring (Oxford University Press) — was a colleague of Bayard’s in the anti-nuclear weapons campaign in England. Citing his being knighted in 2002 and Bayard’s Medal of Freedom in 2013, he chuckled, “What would Bayard think of all this?”
A recent New Yorker article by Jelani Cobb on the Black Lives Matter movement prompted Kelly McEvers of National Public Radio to interview Cobb, who said: “Movements tend to pick up where the last one left off. When people look back at the civil rights movement, one of the most glaring shortcomings that emerges is in many ways the marginalization of women within the movement or things like Bayard Rustin, who was the pivotal organizer of the March on Washington but also faced discrimination as a gay black man. Those are the things that Black Lives Matter looks at and says, ‘We want to not replicate those things. We want to not replicate the errors of the past.’”
Just last Friday, we learned that Bayard’s last residence will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Bayard was among the first to move into the Mutual Redevelopment Houses, Inc., located in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. This development, financed by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), was one of a number of affordable-housing cooperatives built for middle-class families. Also known as Penn South because of its proximity to Pennsylvania Station, it replaced deteriorating tenements while incorporating a large amount of green-space into the design. On May 19, 1962, an opening ceremony was held with President John F. Kennedy, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Mayor Robert Wagner addressing the crowd. During that first year, Bayard’s apartment became an “after hours” office for organizers of the forthcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In 1969, Bayard’s mentor A. Philip Randolph moved into the development and resided there until his death in 1979. We would like to thank Mark Meinke, founder of the Rainbow History Project (http://rainbowhistory.org), for initiating this effort and for completing a detailed application, and Kathleen LaFrank, National Register Coordinator for the NY State Historic Preservation Office, for her generous assistance in guiding the application to its successful outcome! We also appreciate the support of the Penn South Board of Directors, and its director of Education and Communications, Mario Mazzoni.
John D’Emilio, author of Lost Prophet, The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (National Book Award nominee), will address the “Reviving the Dream” celebration on March 22 at the Harley Museum in Milwaukee, WI. Sponsored by Diverse and Resilient (http://www.diverseandresilient.org), a non-profit LGBTQ services organization, the evening will honor the work of Denise Crumble, recipient of the first Bayard Rustin Leadership Award for her “decades of indefatigable work to protect and advance social justice.”
Screenings of Brother Outsider on campuses, in community venues, and in workplaces continue to attract diverse groups of attendees who consistently engage in spirited discussion during Q&A sessions. In the spring of 2015, Nancy showed the film and led a follow-up conversation at the 16th Annual White Privilege Conference. Nancy and Bennett presented a session on Rustin at the annual conference of The Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals, an organization that works to make law firms more inclusive. In January, Mandy and Bennett took part in a King Week event at George Washington University in DC; the session, entitled “Beyond MLK’s Dream: LGBTQIA Civil Rights Leaders,” highlighted Rustin’s life and legacy and was jointly organized by student leaders of GWU’s African American and LGBT campus organizations.
In February, Walter and Bennett were part of a Black History Month event at the NY office of the law firm Cleary Gottlieb. A capacity crowd delivered thought-provoking questions in a fine example of a corporate diversity event; joining the panel was Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney for The Southern Poverty Law Center, who is doing pioneering work on behalf of transgender prisoners. Walter visited Tucson, AZ, in October for a screening sponsored by the Pima County Library LGBT Services group. Using clips from the film, he made an MLK Day presentation at the Medford Leas Quaker retirement community in Medford, NJ. In February, he spoke at a Black History Month celebration sponsored by the True Reflections Ministry in Norristown, PA. (http://www.timesherald.com/article/JR/20160129/NEWS/160129654).
Bennett had an opportunity to share Rustin’s story with audiences in Hong Kong in November: Several workplaces (including Moody’s Corp. and the law firms Freshfields, Skadden, and O’Melveny & Myers) hosted screenings in support of their diversity initiatives; Hong Kong University hosted a free public screening as part of Pink Season, the largest LGBT festival in Asia.
Nancy and Bennett, the co-directors of Brother Outsider, are also both busy with outreach and education work for their new projects. Nancy’s film Regarding Susan Sontag — described as “compelling” and “perceptive” (New York Times) and as a “must-see composition [that] examines the life of an icon for free thinkers and activists everywhere” (Shutterstock.com) — continues to be shown widely; screenings are scheduled at MIT’s Women Take the Reel festival today and at London’s Genesis Cinema on March 20. To learn more, visit http://www.sontagfilm.org. Electoral Dysfunction — which Bennett co-directed and which NPR’s WBEZ Radio described as “fascinating, fun, frightening and enlightening” — is now available in a Classroom Edition, which includes a 35-minute cut of the film and an extensive curriculum guide with lesson plans and resources on voting rights. Educators can obtain these materials at no charge via http://www.electoraldysfunction.org/classroom.
Bayard Rustin, The Invisible Activist, a biography for young readers by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael Long, is available at Quaker Books (https://www.quakerbooks.org/book/bayard-rustin). Last May, Houtman and Naegle did a successful mini-book tour, visiting schools, Quaker meetings, and bookstores in a number of cities including Cambridge, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
The campaign for a Bayard Rustin postage stamp is ongoing. Letters in support of this effort can be sent to: Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o Stamp Development, U.S. Postal Service, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300, Washington, DC 20260. Further information on the campaign can be found on the sponsor’s websites: National LGBTQ Task Force (http://www.thetask.force.org) or the International Court System (http://www.impcourt.org).
A recently established non-profit organization, the Rustin Fund for Global Equality “galvanizes financial and political support for LGBTI individuals, organizations and movements in low-and-middle income countries through innovative, direct fundraising efforts in the United States” (from their mission statement). To learn more about their work, visit http://www.rustinfund.org. The work they are doing is challenging and necessary, and reminiscent of Bayard’s Project South Africa initiative.
To learn more or share news about Rustin, please consider joining the Brother Outsider Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/groups/brotheroutsider. Two celebrations of Rustin’s 104th birthday — taking place in St. Louis and San Francisco — are highlighted there. We hope that no matter where you are, you’ll take a moment to reflect on Bayard’s life and work, and on his belief — now more timely than ever — that “we need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”
Lastly we would like to acknowledge four friends who died during the last year. George Houser, a close friend of Bayard’s from their days at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. His achievements were numerous, and many were reported in his New York Times obituary. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/21/us/george-houser-freedom-rides-pioneer-dies-at-99.html?_r=0). Robert P. DeVecchi of the International Rescue Committee, with whom Bayard worked closely on the resettlement of Indochinese Refugees. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/06/nyregion/robert-p-devecchi-who-led-international-rescue-committee-dies-at-85.html) Thomas M. Shaw, Ph.D., who curated the exhibition “Bayard Rustin As Art Collector,” in 1990 at Kean University in New Jersey, and Robert Pickus, founder of the World Without War Council. A long-time peace activist, “Pick” worked with Bayard in a number of organizations and also as part of the committee that drafted the American Friends Service Committee’s important position paper, “Speak Truth to Power.”
With all best wishes,
Mandy Carter, National Coordinator,
Bayard Rustin Centennial Project, National Black Justice Coalition
Nancy Kates, Producer/Director
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Bennett Singer, Producer/Director
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Walter Naegle, Bayard Rustin’s partner and Executor
Executive Director, Bayard Rustin Fund