In Newly Found Audio, A Forgotten Civil Rights Leader Says Coming Out 'Was An Absolute Necessity'

Jan 6, 2019
Originally published on January 10, 2019 2:39 pm

He was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington.

Still, Bayard Rustin's legacy as a leading figure in the civil rights movement is little known today, even among many history buffs and within the LGBTQ community. His homosexuality cost him that visibility and was considered by some as a hindrance to the movement's success.

Rustin died in 1987, but his silenced voice was recently resurrected in previously unaired audio from an interview with the Washington Blade in the mid-1980s. The audio will air this week in an episode of the podcast Making Gay History. It was discovered by Sara Burningham, the podcast's executive producer.

Rustin was the target of homophobic attacks, and as he discusses in the interview, he was sidelined by other black leaders at key moments during a movement he helped steer.

"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," Rustin says to the Blade in the interview.

He conceded, but as Eric Marcus, the host of Making Gay History, tells NPR's Michel Martin, Rustin kept working for the cause. In the face of constant setbacks and discrimination, Marcus says, Rustin's commitment prevailed, a quality Marcus attributes to his Quaker upbringing.

The rare tape was provided by Rustin's surviving partner, Walter Naegle, who preserved a library of backup recordings. Those recordings have helped foster a better understanding of the gay icon — one that Marcus concedes was absent from his civil rights education.

"I feel like I was robbed of my history as a gay person," Marcus says. "Growing up, if I'd known known about someone like him, it would've been transformative."

Marcus finds it inspiring that Rustin was open about his sexuality at a time when being gay was still considered dangerous. His arrest record included protesting and charges related to his homosexuality.

"Even though he had an arrest record because he was caught in the backseat of a car with two men in 1953 in California and then jailed for two months, he still managed to be a key figure in the black civil rights movement and organized the march on Washington," Marcus says.

Despite the risks, Rustin felt it was his responsibility to be open about his sexuality. He traces that duty back to an experience he had as a black man in the 1940s Jim Crow South, when he took his place at the back of a segregated bus.

"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," he recalled in the newly released audio. "Whereupon its mother said, 'Don't touch a n*****.' "

As Rustin tells it, here's what ran through his mind in that moment after the white woman called him the slur: "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.' "

Instead, he saw this moment as an opportunity, and an obligation, to disrupt what he saw as the inheritance of a prejudiced education in practice.

"I owe it to that child," he told himself, "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."

To Rustin, asserting his identity as an African-American went hand-in-hand with identifying as a gay man. "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," he said. "I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And, finally, today, we're going to hear the voice of a civil rights icon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAYARD RUSTIN: If I've learned anything, it is that people, by helping others, grow in strength to help themselves.

MARTIN: No, that's not Martin Luther King Jr. or Ralph Bunche or John Lewis. That's the voice of Bayard Rustin speaking to a reporter from The Washington Blade in the mid-1980s. Bayard Rustin was a leading figure in the civil rights movement, an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., the organizational genius behind the 1963 March on Washington. But he was also the target of homophobic attacks that caused him to be sidelined at key moments. Now we can hear Rustin talk about that period in his life in his own words.

Eric Marcus is the host and founder of Making Gay History, a podcast featuring interviews of people who were instrumental in the movement for the rights of LGBTQ people. He's airing Rustin's interview for the first time on an episode of the podcast this week. And he's going to share some of that tape with us now.

Eric Marcus is with us now from our studios in New York. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.

ERIC MARCUS: Such a pleasure, especially to talk about Bayard Rustin.

MARTIN: Well, tell us about this remarkable tape. I mean, Rustin died in 1987, long before your podcast. How did you find this tape?

MARCUS: Well, it was a bit of a search. My producer knew that Bayard had talked about the - his experience of being gay and the impact of that on his role in the movement. And there were two specific speeches that she was looking for. One was called From Montgomery to Stonewall, which he gave at the University of Pennsylvania in 1986. And then, he did an interview with The Village Voice, and we hoped those had been recorded.

Well, it turns out that Walter Naegle, his surviving partner, lives eight blocks north of where I live and where my producer lives. And we were introduced to him, and he recorded backups. During the last 10 years of Bayard's life, when he was with him, he did backup recordings of all the interviews that Bayard did.

MARTIN: That's amazing.

MARCUS: Yeah. So it turned out he had those two interviews, but they weren't usable. And, if you can imagine, there was a handoff of cassette tapes on the corner of 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue in New York to my producer. But each time, Sara came back and said, we can't use them. The tapes are not good enough to use. And he said, oh, I've got more. And that's how we came to be in possession of this extraordinary interview.

MARTIN: So people who are immersed in the history of the civil rights movement will have heard of him. But a lot of people have not heard of him, and that's probably because his - being an out gay man was considered a problem for the movement. And there are even other black leaders who used his sexuality against him. I just want to play a clip where he talks about that. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSTIN: 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.

MARTIN: And King did eventually ask Rustin to step down or at least to take a low profile. How did he - how did Bayard Rustin respond to that?

MARCUS: That's one of the questions I would love to have asked, but I didn't do this interview. But I - what I've come to understand about Bayard from listening to him and from reading about him, he didn't hold grudges, and he kept his eye on the prize. And I think in no small part because of his Quaker upbringing and his Quaker beliefs, he turned aside. He knew the movement was more important than he was. But he always found a way to get back in.

And the remarkable things about 1963 - a year later, he's organizing the March on Washington and, yes, in the background. But you see him in all the pictures. And I feel like I wish I had known about him. My education about the civil rights movement was pretty thin back in the 1960s and '70s because, as a gay kid growing up, I would've loved to have known that there was this extraordinary hero who had done these things against all odds during a period when the gay rights movement itself was so weak and, really, at its very beginning.

And, here, he had managed even though he was gay, even though the FBI was keeping an eye on him. And even though he had an arrest record - because he was caught in the backseat of a car with two men in 1953 in California and then jailed for two months - he still managed to be a key figure in the black civil rights movement and organized the March on Washington.

MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the things that I think people appreciate now is that he was open about his sexuality at a time when that was, in fact, quite dangerous. I mean, he was - as you just noted, he was arrested several times, both for protesting and for charges related to his sexuality. And I just want to play a clip of the part of the interview where he talks about why being out was so important to him. And it's related to the fact of his identity as a black man...

MARCUS: Yes.

MARTIN: And he talks about - now, I can't play all of it because it's - they'll have to listen to your podcast for that. But he talks about his experience as a black man in the '40s in the South, going into the back of a segregated bus. And a child reached out to kind of touch something shiny on his necktie, which he was attracted to, and his mother, using the N-word, said don't touch that, you know, N-word. And...

MARCUS: It was breathtaking, yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. And then, he says he decided not to go to the back of the bus, but that's related to his feeling about his - let me just play that part here. And then, you can tell us more about it. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSTIN: 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 that was a part of the effort to destroy me.

MARCUS: I moved to tears every time I hear him say that.

MARTIN: Tell me more.

MARCUS: Well, if you think about the time in which that - it's the 1940s. I've interviewed a lot of LGBTQ people from those years, from the '40s, '50s and '60s, who somehow, despite the crushing burden of a society that condemned them, still believed, fundamentally, that they were - there was nothing wrong with them, that they were good people. He wound up paying a high price for his openness. But he was determined and felt that it was his responsibility to be out.

And it's something that I felt as a young person that I was - my grandmother once said to me, why do you have to - you know, it's OK that you're gay. But why do you have to tell anybody? And I said, well, I'm in a position where I feel that I can set an example. I feel like I have a role in this life. And while my role was much - certainly a much smaller scale than Bayard Rustin's, I can relate to what he's talking about.

But he was doing it at a time when the price that one would pay for being out was so high. Most gay people who were involved in the movement in those years - which wasn't even called a movement yet in the '50s and '60s - used pseudonyms. He didn't. He used his name, and he was out there and proud.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of how his family felt about his identity as a gay man?

MARCUS: So you're determined to make me cry on this episode, Michel. His grandmother, who raised him - he thought his grandmother was his mother. He was an illegitimate child. His sister, it turned out, was his mother. His grandmother dealt with him in such a lovely way. She was concerned about protecting him. At one point, she says that - told him that he should only go with people who had as much to lose as he did. And then, she would inquire, in later years, if he had any - a special friend that he might have met.

RUSTIN: Yes, a special friend. That was the euphemism, wasn't it?

MARTIN: Yeah. I think his grandmother went to the same school as my grandmother (laughter) because my grandmother used special friend, also. And that was so lovely and also so true of people in those days in ways that I could never have imagined until I started interviewing people and discovered that families were supportive, often, not always but often of their loved ones and fearful of the danger they were in because they were gay and lived in a world that was so dangerous for gay people.

MARTIN: Finally, what do you see as Bayard Rustin's legacy?

MARCUS: His life had such meaning. He found a way to live in a world that didn't accept him on so many levels and, really, to thrive and teaches all of us that - even when we're thwarted in what we want to accomplish, that there are ways to do it but not to do it with bitterness, not to do it with anger but to find the path forward that will let you accomplish what you need to do. He had his eye on social justice on equality for all people. He brought that to his talks about gay people very late in his life. But it was always about equality and about respect and about empathy for people who are different.

MARTIN: That's Eric Marcus of the podcast Making Gay History. His episode on Bayard Rustin is scheduled to air this coming week on January 10. Eric Marcus, thank you so much for joining us.

MARCUS: Thanks, Michel. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.