Revisiting the Archive — Episode 12 — Bayard Rustin
Making Gay History stands with the countless Americans protesting systemic racism and the deaths of black and brown people at the hands of the police. And we draw inspiration from civil rights heroes like Bayard Rustin, an out and proud black gay man who dedicated his life to fighting injustice.
Visit our Season Four episode webpage for background information, archival photos, and other resources.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History. It’s been a week of anger, anguish, and heartbreak here in New York City and across the country.
Massive protests over George Floyd’s murder under the knee of a police officer have been met with repeated, widespread violence by militarized police, the threat of active duty military being deployed to control citizens exercising their constitutional rights, the ongoing drumbeat of white supremacy coming from the White House—the people’s house, now an embattled president’s fortress. Peaceful protesters described as terrorists.
From day to day and hour to hour, I’ve been alternately sickened and heartened, filled with despair and then lifted up by the voices of people across the country demanding revolutionary change, because Black Lives Matter. At Making Gay History, we’re proud and humbled to stand with them. All Black Lives Matter. LGBTQ Black Lives Matter.
On Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk and heard noise I couldn’t identify coming through my open window. My partner Barney and I went outside to see what was going on—thousands of protestors marching up Ninth Avenue as far as the eye could see—wearing masks, carrying signs, and chanting.
They were heading north and in a few blocks they’d be passing the apartment complex where Bayard Rustin once lived. He was a principal architect of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In August 1963, a quarter of a million Americans massed in Washington, DC, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to demand an end to state-sanctioned racism.
In this “Revisiting the Archive” episode, you’ll hear Bayard Rustin in his own words. In addition to coordinating the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard was one of the organizers of the very first freedom ride through the American South in 1947, and was mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Bayard Rustin was a proud black gay man who paid a high price for proclaiming who he was long before it was remotely safe to do so. He put himself in harm’s way over and over again—subjected to attacks by white supremacists who used his race and sexuality to try to destroy him. But he not only resisted, he triumphed.
You’re about to hear an interview Bayard Rustin gave on February 5, 1986, a year and a half before he died. The reporter was a young Peg Byron, who was freelancing for the DC-based gay newspaper, the Washington Blade. Peg conducted the interview in Bayard’s office on lower Park Avenue in New York City, just across town from where he lived in Chelsea with his partner, Walter Naegle.
Walter was also Bayard’s assistant and you can hear the sound of him typing in the next room through much of the interview. It’s thanks to Walter—who recorded the conversation and saved it for decades in a box under their bed—that we’re able to hear Bayard speak in this rare interview about the impact of his sexuality on his work in the civil rights movement.
So let’s join Peg Byron at Bayard Rustin’s desk and listen to history from a man who changed its course.
Peg Byron: I’m gonna tape this, too, if you don’t mind.
Bayard Rustin: No, that’s quite alright. Walter’s doing some research on me, and therefore he tapes whenever anybody else does. Not to check on anybody…
PB: Yeah… Is that me?
BR: I think that’s this one. Walter? If this shows red, does that mean his has stopped?
PB: No, his is still going.
PB: Has there ever been some project you were involved with where, not that being gay was necessarily an issue, but did you ever feel frustration about…
BR: Oh, certainly. I don’t know if you know, but I was an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King’s for a number of years. And that actually I’m the person who drew up the plans for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him. And after eight years that committee came to the decision it would be dangerous.
PB: Wait, the committee met for eight years?
BR: No, he set… After I had worked for him for eight years, the… J. Edgar Hoover began to circulate all kinds of stories about Martin Luther King, one of which was that he was a friend of mine, hinting that somehow or other there might be some homosexual relationship going on between us. This frightened a number of the people in Martin Luther King’s movement, and they set up a committee to discover what they should do about it. And that committee asked me to leave.
PB: When was that?
BR: That was around 1962. And, naturally, I took the position that if people feel that I am a danger to some important movement, I would leave. But the thing which distressed me was that if… if Martin had taken the strong stand then that he took a year later, in ’63, vis-à-vis Strom Thurmond, he could have overcome it and kept me. But I understand his doing it, and I hold no grief with him about having done it. I just wish that he had shown the strength in ’62 that he showed when he backed me completely in ’63. But he was a year older, and had another year’s experience.
If I’ve learned anything it is that people, by helping others who are also in trouble, grow in strength to help themselves—that a new psychological and spiritual element is brought to bear.
Now this became very clear to me in 1963, when I was organizing the March on Washington. And Strom Thurmond stood up in the Senate of the United States and for three-quarters of an hour, attacked me as a draft dodger, which was untrue, because I was a conscientious objector and well known as being a Quaker opposed to all violence. He attacked me as a former member of the Young Communist League, which was true. I had been. He attacked me as a homosexual. Which of course I was.
PB: You were the original commie-pinko-fag of the day, I suppose.
BR: Yeah, exactly. Now, there were 10 leaders of that march. One of the most important Jews, the most important Catholic, the most important Protestant, Walter Reuther representing the trade union movement, and six black civil rights leaders. When he attacked me, I had absolutely no basic apprehension and for a very good reason, because I had spent a great deal of my life defending prejudice against Catholics, against trade unions, against Jews, against blacks, against Protestants, and therefore I inwardly knew that those leaders, knowing of my history, had to come to my defense. And they did. And the important thing was that they voted that only one person should speak, and that was the founder of the march, Mr. A. Philip Randolph.
PB: One person should speak?
BR: To the press, after this attack. And they agreed that the only thing they would say were two things. One, we have absolute faith in Mr. Rustin’s character, and absolute faith in his ability to make this march an historic event.
PB: And your role in the march, were you the coordinator of the march?
BR: I was the coordinator. Now, I point that out because that was a great experience and I think the opposite, that I could have been in great trouble. And I think that, had I not spent a great deal of my life defending all of those groups, there would have been less of a determined effort to defend me.
This is from the New York Times of August 16, 1963, written by one of the best writers of the Times, which says, “Negro Rally Aide Rebuts Senator.” So, I, you don’t have to read that now, but I thought you might find something in that of interest.
PB: Thanks. Oh, that’s great. Thank you.
BR: In other words…
PB: “Negro,” so it starts with so much as the New York Times homosexual…
BR: Well, in those days…
PB: In those days that was the accepted…
BR: Everybody was a Negro. Yeah.
PB: Parlance, I know.
PB: With all the work you were doing in human rights at the time, you must have been feeling some sense like you had this coming? I mean, you had a right to, you know, have your gayness as well as your blackness, and, you know, a Quaker believes defending…
BR: One of the reasons that I decided that I should no longer remain in the closet came from an experience I had as a black. One day, in 19…, way back as far as 1947, I walked into a bus in the South, all prepared to do what I had always done in the South. Take a seat in the rear.
As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the red necktie I was wearing and pulled it. Whereupon its mother said, “Don’t touch a nigger.” Something happened, and I said to myself, If I go and sit quietly in 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.” That’s what people in the South would say.
So I said, I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, but 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.
Now, 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…
PB: Sitting in the back, yeah…
BR: … the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me. And that in the long run the only way I could be a free whole person was to face the shit.
But from my own experience I know how long it can take till you free yourself. Thirty-four years is a long time to free yourself.
PB: So when did you first come out as gay, to yourself?
BR: I recognized that I was gay when I was in high school.
PB: Where was that?
BR: That was in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
PB: West Chester High?
BR: Yeah. But I was fortunate and was very successful at hiding it, because I was on the championship football team. I was on the championship track team. I won the all-state high school championship for tennis. I was so popular and boys in the school liked me so that they automatically made me the manager of the basketball team—I couldn’t play basketball at all—in order that I would get four letters, because the manager got four letters. So, at that point, it was all extremely romantic and far removed from any activity. But I knew then that my affection was far more for men than women.
I told you that I won all those honors in sports.
PB: Yeah, you were the all-around…
BR: But when the banquet came for the football team, it was held at the YMCA, in which I was not allowed to go swim. So my grandmother urged me in protest not to go to the banquet, and I’m so glad she did. Because I learned from that that you may have worked hard as you could for Dr. King, but there also may be a time when things are not just gonna go the way you want them to, or that if you had strength enough to fight them and not go to the banquet where all your friends were, then you can deal with Strom Thurmond. I learned some things in that early period.
When I look back upon it I also understood that my experience there had been a very liberating one. And because of what I had to put up with there, I also was preparing myself with putting up with what I had to do as a gay person.
PB: Were you from a big family?
BR: Well, I came from an immediate very small family, because I was born illegitimately to my mother when she was 16 and my father was 17. Now that was my immediate family. But because of their ages and their inability to deal with a baby, my grandmother and grandfather reared me and they had eight children. So I picture myself as coming from an enormous family, and in fact I must have been nine or 10 before I realized my mother was not my sister. And that’s how totally accepted I was.
PB: Do your parents, or your family, know that you’re gay?
BR: My grandmother knew it but she never spoke of it. I can tell you how I personally knew she knew it. I was associating with a young, rather handsome fellow, and she called me one day and she said…
PB: In high school?
BR: No, this was after I had come out in college. She called me one day and she says, “Bayard, I think you have to be very careful associating with …” And she called his name. And I said, “Why, mama?” She says, “Because you are the type of person who can easily get into trouble, and particularly where young men are concerned, always associate with people who have as much to lose as you have.” And she said, “He has absolutely nothing to lose.” Now somehow or other I knew from that day on she knew. Then later she’d always say to me…
PB: It sounds like your mother is saying, “He is not good enough for you, dear.”
BR: I think that’s what she meant but not in those terms. I think she meant that it’s very dangerous to get involved because you are gay with people who don’t have as much to hide as you have. I think that’s what she was saying. Because she was such a libertarian and I can’t imagine her meaning the other thing although she may have meant both, who knows?
At any rate, later when I went back to college, she would always say to me, “Why don’t you bring one of your young friends from college home with you? We would love to have some of your young friends.” And I would say, “Oh, fine.” And she would say, “Oh, that young man that you’ve been writing to me about from Cleveland sounds very interesting, why don’t you bring him?” I think she was saving me from asking to bring him.
PB: That’s very sweet.
BR: Oh, she was a marvelous person, she really was.
PB: How did you like your trip to Washington, by the way? You spoke to the Black and White Men Together group?
BR: I enjoyed it very much. I thought it was a very good group. And I suppose when you get good discussion after a talk, you always feel it’s important. Because that’s what one goes for, to try to stimulate people’s thinking.
My general thesis was that the human condition is of a single pattern. And that none of us is free and none of us can practice democracy fully so long as any other segment of the community or any country is not democratic. And that therefore it is very important that as gay people sought their rights, that they understand the interconnection and that therefore their working for the rights of all other groups was in their own selfish, as well as in their own humanitarian, interests.
I think one of the problems is this, that people who have been mistreated almost always tend to adopt the worst element of their enemy, and mistreat other people.
There is a great deal of prejudice amongst gay whites to blacks and Hispanics. This is understandable largely because everybody tends to avoid the double jeopardy. “I’ve got enough on me as a white queer, why do I have to have black friends who pull down a whole lot of more crap on me?” I understand this and I’m sympathetic to it, but as I go around talking, I point out to people until they do get over that, they are still playing games with themselves. And it’s bad enough that the straight world out there should try to cripple you, it is even worse at the point you cooperate with their crippling.
EM Narration: Bayard Rustin made a decision early in his life, as he put it, to face the shit. And now it’s long past time that we as a nation face the shit—face the fact that systemic racism—with the participation and consent of white Americans—has layered injustice upon injustice and cost the lives of more black and brown Americans than we’ve ever acknowledged. And we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s killing black and brown people in disproportionate numbers as a result of those persistent patterns of injustice.
If there’s a silver lining in this moment in time, it’s that hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, having decided that they—that we—have to face up to how we have failed to live up to the promise of America. I’m not religious but still, I pray for the health and the safety of the brave protesters. And I pray for this country.
Thank you to Walter Naegle for allowing us to digitize and share his precious recording of Bayard Rustin. Thank you also to Sara Burningham, Making Gay History’s founding producer and editor, for tracking down the tapes and producing this episode. And thank you to Inge De Taeye, Making Gay History’s deputy director, for doing everything that needs to be done to get this episode to you.
So long. Stay safe. Until next time