Bayard Rustin: The Man Homophobia Almost Erased From History

Rustin played a key role in advancing civil rights and economic justice. His partner, Walter Naegle, talks with BuzzFeed about that legacy on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the march Rustin made a reality.

Courtesy of Associated Press

Like so many gay New Yorkers of his era, a 27-year-old Walter Naegle went to Times Square one afternoon in 1977 and met a man. The tall man with the shock of white in his Afro introduced himself as Bayard Rustin. Black and 37 years Naegle’s senior, Rustin was — to a well-informed circle of activists, historians, and politicos — one of the giants of the 20th-century political organizing. The chance encounter was the beginning of a revolutionary love story, a decade-long relationship that, in many ways, epitomizes our country’s journey from Selma to Stonewall.

Rustin, who died in 1987, is best known as the chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His legacy has had a renaissance in the past few weeks, as the White House announced he will posthumously receive the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in November, just two months after the march celebrates its 50th anniversary. Walter Naegle will accept the honor on behalf of the love of his life.

“We were very much an ordinary couple. He was an extraordinary person, but our everyday lives were quite ordinary,” Naegle maintains.

In the 2003 documentary about Rustin, Brother Outsider, Naegle jokes that he had to come out to his mother by saying, “I’m gay, he’s black, and he’s older than you.”

But neither Rustin’s sexual openness nor his controversial political positions came without great costs. He wound up behind bars for practicing his nonviolent Quaker faith (from 1944 to 1946 in a Pennsylvania prison for conscientiously objecting to serving in World War II) and for practicing homosexuality (60 days in a California jail for “sex perversion” in 1953). And his many achievements — like pioneering one of the first Freedom Rides, refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus in 1942, more than a dozen years before Rosa Parks did, and helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition to support the efforts of a then young, largely unknown minister named Martin Luther King Jr. — often were tainted under the threat of exposure for his unpopular behavior and criminal convictions.

When Naegle learned that the White House was going to honor Rustin, he was thrilled, of course, but also a bit worried that he’d “wake up one morning to the headline, ‘Obama Gives Medal of Freedom to Communist Fag.’” But any attack Rustin could possibly face in death would likely pale compared to what he faced in life, as he battled critics as diverse as the segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond to the black Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Both — for different reasons, obviously — tried outing Rustin to oust him from political life.

And yet, when the civil rights movement needed a man even his detractors acknowledged was the best organizer in the country — a man who turned out 200,000 people on the Capitol Mall in an orderly fashion when no one ever had before, creating the blueprint for the modern American mass political rally — they turned to Bayard Rustin. By the eve of the march in 1963, Rustin had no less a defender than MLK himself standing up for him.

Courtesy of Walter Naegle

In 1960, Rustin and MLK were preparing to lead a boycott of blacks outside the Democratic National Convention. This would have deeply embarrassed the leading elected black politician of the day, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. Powell threatened to spread a rumor that Rustin was having a sexual relationship with King.

King canceled the protest, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

That year was not the first time Rustin was forced to negotiate how much sex could be a part of his life. After his 1953 arrest, in which he’d been picked up with two men in the back seat of a car in Pasadena, California, he wrote, “Sex must be sublimated if I am to live in this world longer.”

Did that mean he’d ever considered living a celibate life?

“Not Bayard!” Naegle says, roaring with laughter. “Maybe for five minutes.” The Pasadena incident meant that Rustin knew “he had to be more careful.” When Naegle talks about Rustin having sex in public, he admits that it’s not that “I’ve never done that — I mean, I haven’t gotten arrested. I was just too quick for them!”

But, he adds, “At the time I did those things, I was not in a position with an organization. He made some bad choices. Now, in all fairness to him, at the time the Pasadena incident happened, straight people were having sex in cars! Having sex outside of marriage was not supposed to happen, and in some places it was illegal …[and] I am sure that straight people who were — caught having sex in cars were told to go home. Gay people were vilified and demonized.”

Naegle says that Rustin “had an extraordinarily strong sense of himself and of who he was,” but that “when you live in a society in which you’re constantly being told that you’re less than or that you’re not as good as, for being black or a Jew or gay or anything, a certain amount does get internalized. You can’t help that.”

Rustin’s sexual arrest record terrorized him again in 1963, when segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond read its entire contents into the congressional record, in an attempt to make the march lose its best organizer. It backfired. Civil rights leaders, taking an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach, were not supporters of Thurmond and backed Rustin.

Still, no matter how careful a homosexual was about not putting himself in a position in which he could be easily arrested again, there was nothing Rustin could do to stop rumors or new information being picked up by federal eavesdropping (JFK signed off on Rustin’s phone being tapped, Naegle says, which LBJ and Nixon continued) in the hands of someone like Adam Clayton Powell.

And yet, Rustin was not one to hold a grudge, even against Powell. “They were never at war,” Naegle says of Rustin and Powell’s relationship. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and Powell had to stay in bed with Rustin for years after blackmailing him for being gay.

“I think [Powell’s] power was threatened,” Naegle says. “He’d been the most powerful black man in the political world for a long time,” and then along came King, Ralph Abernathy, and a bunch of black Southerners encroaching on his turf.

Even still, Rustin “defended Adam when he was being censured by the House, for all that hanky-panky going on in Bimini.” Just a couple of years after he guided the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through the House of Representatives, Powell was accused of missing too much work and taking two women on vacation to the Bahamas at taxpayers’ expense. In January 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of a committee chairmanship; in March, the full House voted not to seat him.

Rustin, he says, believed Powell “was being singled out because he was black. He wasn’t saying he was a choirboy, but there were plenty of white politicians doing the same thing, and this was racist.” Despite not being seated, Powell was reelected to his seat in 1968 and filed suit about being kicked out of Congress. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that Powell’s colleagues had unseated him unconstitutionally.

Naegle’s voice cracks and he tears up when he says, “Bayard was willing to stand up for people — even though they had mistreated him — if it was a matter of principle.”

 

Bayard Rustin at the 1963 March on Washington.

On Aug. 28, 1963, the day Rustin would organize one of the most important singular gatherings in 20th-century American history, Naegle was a white teenager in rural New Jersey. He was one of seven children in a Roman Catholic family.

“I was a pretty serious kid,” Naegle says, “so I knew about the march.” He says he first learned who Rustin was around then, as his name was in the papers and he was on the cover of Life magazine.

The March on Washington was one of the seminal events that inspired Naegle’s increasing interest in the nonviolent movement, a passion he’d share with his future partner. By the time he graduated high school in the late ’60s, at the height of the Vietnam War, he decided he wasn’t going into the military. When he dropped out of college and joined Vista (the domestic Peace Corps, which preceded AmeriCorps), he was prepared to go to jail as a conscientious objector.

In January 1969, “I sent my draft letter back saying, ‘Thank you very much, but no thanks,’” Naegle recalls, chuckling. At the time, the peace, hippie, and queer movements were blossoming and overlapping. Many people in them — gay and straight — “acted gay” in front of their draft board to get out of serving.

“I could have avoided it if I had said I was gay,” he says when asked about this possibility. But, at “that point my life, it was about confronting what I thought was an evil, and doing it openly.”

“Gay people should be allowed to serve in the military,” Naegle says, “if that’s what they want, which is where we are now.”

Eventually, an FBI agent showed up at Naegle’s job to question him “for about 45 minutes.” He waited with a cloud over his head for years, but nothing came of the visit. (Many years later, he found out that the military had made a technical error in not sending him a conscientious objector application. Naegle eventually obtained his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, which was “just about 10 pages, compared to Bayard’s, which was about 10,000.”)

During those years, when the anti-war movement was gaining a critical mass, there was notable absence from the ranks of its leaders: Bayard Rustin.

Rustin grew up in a Quaker family in rural Pennsylvania. He had been a palpable force in the anti-violence movements of the 1930s and ’40s, working with groups like the Quaker American Friends Service Committee and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. His work took him around the United States and landed him in Harlem. He made his bones as a “freelance troublemaker organizer for hire,” as Naegle describes him, honing the skills he’d perfect on the Capitol Mall by running logistics for political meetings in New York. He traveled to India to learn nonviolence from Gandhi’s disciples shortly after the mahatma was assassinated.

Rustin went to jail for refusing to serve in World War II, as unpopular a war effort to criticize as any in American history. But during Vietnam, Rustin “didn’t become a leader in the anti-war movement, but he didn’t support the war,” Naegle says. “He maintained his personal commitment to nonviolence, much more than many of his critics.”

The March on Washington marked a unique day in civil rights history, as it may have been the only moment in which so many factions of the movement agreed with each other. The various camps — the pacifists, the politicians, labor, the ministers — were all on the same page for a minute in terms of strategy and content.

The solidarity of this moment wouldn’t last through much of the ’60s. Rustin would eventually be accused by some pacifists of not being hard on LBJ because Johnson was rolling out the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs, which Rustin found so crucial to helping black people. Meanwhile, by 1968, King was on the outs with much of the civil rights movement for being too concerned with peace and poverty. His speech at the Riverside Church decrying the Vietnam War was not well received by many black leaders (but was supported by Rustin). His fateful decision to go to Memphis to stand with the sanitation workers was derided by many movement leaders (but supported by Rustin).

But King’s plans for the Poor People’s Campaign — in which he wanted to lead a coalition of black, white, and Hispanic poor people to set up a shantytown on the Capitol Mall — were not even supported by Rustin.

“He disagreed with Dr. King at times, and people didn’t like that,” Naegle says, but it was always “on matters of tactics and political strategy, not on personal or moral issues or principles. It had more to do with practicality.” Indeed, the Poor People’s Campaign was seen by its supporters as a kind of sequel to the March on Washington. But Rustin did not think the Poor People’s Campaign was wise, “with thousands of poor people and without a concrete program or plan. Bayard’s position was, ‘It’s fine to protest, but you have to make it clear to your opposition what you’re protesting about.’”

Despite his reservations, Rustin did step in to help with organizing the Poor People’s Campaign after King died. But he stepped down after a few weeks; 1968 was not a good year for civil rights in the United States, and King’s final campaign was plagued by infighting in the wake of his death. Rustin knew — and history has proven him right — that you don’t get the kind of lasting attention of a nation that the March on Washington produced unless your organizational plan is every bit as impressive as the message you are trying to deliver.

Regardless of the varying levels of success of each, the March on Washington was the model for the Poor People’s Campaign, which itself was the model for the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. From a tactical standpoint, Naegle thinks Rustin would have had “real questions about [Occupy]. You need to give your opposition a way to get out of the situation, to lose, with dignity, or to win. It’s fine to go out and say, ‘Hey, we want peace.’ I mean, George Bush would say that! But how do you get to that? What are the practical steps?”

The man who got Mahalia Jackson, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, Andrew Young, Rabbi Uri Miller, and Martin Luther King together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial knew the value of the practical steps.

Courtesy of Walter Naegle

In his final years, by the time he was sharing his life with Naegle, Rustin was marrying the fight for racial civil rights with the emerging gay rights movement. He challenged the terrain of contemporary prejudice in a speech in which he said, “The new ‘niggers’ are gays.”

Rustin, being so much older than Naegle, wanted to protect him legally for inheritance purposes. But “gay marriage” was almost unheard of, and any kind of legal status like domestic partnerships for legal couples was many years away.

So Rustin, ever the creative problem solver when it came to outwitting discrimination, adopted Naegle as his son.

“Bayard saw something in one of the LGBT papers,” Naegle recalls, about a couple in the Midwest who had tried to adopt each other. He had probably read about Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, who got married in Michigan in 1971. McConnell then legally adopted Baker so that he could deduct him from his taxes. (They are still together.)

Naegle says that Rustin “talked to his lawyer about it and we decided we would try it. So I got permission from my mother, and she had to sign a paper disowning me.”

Was his mother OK with that, or did she find it strange?

“Both,” he says with an expression that reads both as a grimace and an ironic smile. They did it as a legal technicality in the face of other options. The New York Times felt no need to explain this distinction. In its 1987 obituary of Rustin, it merely describes Naegle as Rustin’s “administrative assistant and adopted son.” It is strange that the Times didn’t address the terms of the adoption, considering that Naegle and Rustin were always out as a couple.

“When I was with Bayard, he was always getting invited to social events — the dinners for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the Urban League, the Frederick Douglass Foundation,” Naegle says, who would go as his date. Yet the Times’ obit ignored Naegle’s overall role in Rustin’s life. The paper also relegated Rustin’s sexual orientation to the back of the bus, waiting until the 40th paragraph in a 42-paragraph-long story to say that Rustin had recently been “quoted as saying he was homosexual,” even though he’d been out his whole adult life and had spent the final years of his public life explicitly calling for gay rights.

But it was the 1980s, and the obit is an example of how the Times, as consistently as it could get away with, avoided LGBT issues and pushed them as far from sight as possible. As the play The Normal Heart dramatizes, the ’80s began with the Times needing to be shamed into covering the nascent AIDS crisis. By the end of the decade, the paper of record still had great difficulty talking about homosexuality.

Rustin had no such difficulty. Naegle says Rustin was calmer in his final years, wandering around New York City with his walking stick as a kind of elder statesman, before he died at the age of 75. His fervor for racial civil rights grew more muted, as he relied upon institutional forces to carry out the battles he’d set in motion via street-level activism in his youth. But Rustin’s language calling for gay rights and economic rights grew increasingly militant during his final years.

In 1986, just a year before he died, Rustin gave a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in which he exhorted gay people to “recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”

Veering into the economics of poverty, Rustin said, “You will not feed people à la the philosophy of the Reagan administration. Imagine a society that takes lunches from school children. Do you really think it’s possible for gays to get civil rights in that kind of society?”

Bayard Rustin and Dr. Eugene Reed at Freedom House. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna / Library of Congress / Via loc.gov

The last week of June of this year saw great gains and losses for the civil rights of gay, straight, black, and white Americans, as the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of both the Defense of Marriage Act but also of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That latter was one of the most salient results of the March on Washington. In organizing the march, Rustin had spent much of his time in the background. He’d written the first-ever pamphlet that explained how to get 200,000 people to the nation’s capital on a single day, and he figured out every logistic from the speaking order to the sound system to the number of bathrooms.

But near the end of the march, Rustin took to the podium for one of its most important, most radical, and least remembered moments. Rustin read aloud the list of the march’s 10 “demands of this revolution,” right before King and Roy Wilkins hand-delivered them to President Kennedy.

With the eighth demand, Rustin called for “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this.” (A 1963 wage of $2 an hour would equate to $15.27 today. In 2013, the minimum wage is only $7.25, which would have been about 95 cents when Rustin took the mic.)

With the seventh demand, Rustin called for “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” (In 2013, 6.6% of white Americans are unemployed, and twice as many black Americans are.)

Rustin is beautifully composed as he reads these demands aloud, his aristocratic voice betraying his rural Pennsylvania roots. He appears simultaneously on fire and calm. But when he calls, in the very first demand, for “the right to vote,” it is hard to believe, 50 years later, this right could still be so elusive.

Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina has enacted what Slate calls “the most restrictive voting law we’ve seen since the 1965 enactment of the VRA.” The federal government is suing Texas to stop a restrictive voter ID law. Even Rustin’s native Pennsylvania, a northern state not originally subjected to the Voting Rights Act, has been attempting to curtail the right to vote.

Rustin’s legacy lives not in the past, but in the present and future of America. His work linking sexual, racial, and economic rights was not only forward-thinking in 1963, but in 2013.

“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” Rustin said in one of his most famous quotes.

When President Obama presents Rustin’s medal to Naegle, that need will be no less great.

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