Last week here at the university, a memorial march was held in honor of the civil rights legend, Bayard Rustin. If you do not recognize the name, you are not alone…many have not. This remarkable man gave his entire adult life in the cause of equal rights. But because he was not just black, but also proudly gay, he has long been pushed behind the curtain of the civil rights movement.
I was honored to be invited to deliver the opening address before the march. Below are my remarks…
It is ironic to me that today you all have gathered to participate in a public march to commemorate a man who was forced to be virtually invisible for most of his life. I suppose like many of you, I had never heard of Mr. Bayard Rustin until Jewleah Johnson introduced me to him. And while I intend to learn more about this remarkable man, I would like to share with you a few things that I have discovered:
- Bayard Rustin was fighting for the civil rights of all people, a decade before Dr. King and the civil rights movement began to march and change the face of our country.
- Bayard Rustin tutored Dr. King in the principles of pacifism and non-violent protest. As a practicing Quaker, Mr. Rustin’s religious beliefs held “peace” as sacred and he even traveled to India to advance his understanding of civil protest through non-violent means.
- Bayard Rustin worked for voter registration and fought for the integration of public schools.
- Bayard Rustin spoke out against discrimination on public transportation and in interstate travel; he lobbied for equitable treatment for all people in the military and stood up for the rights of common workers; he criticized Britain’s colonialization of India and Africa and worked on behalf of Thai and Cambodian refugees in the wake of the Vietnam War.
- Bayard Rustin monitored elections in Europe, Africa, Central & South America and even assisted Soviet and Ethiopian Jews on their pilgrimage to their newly established home of Israel.
And Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington - the march that gave us Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and set in motion a permanent change in how we viewed race relations in the United States.
Despite all of these remarkable accomplishments, most of us had never heard of Bayard Rustin because Bayard Rustin was a proud, gay, black man. Like many in the gay community, Rustin was jailed and mistreated by the police, abused a derided due to the homophobia of the age in which he lived. But perhaps even more tragically, Rustin was at times, shunned by individuals within the civil rights movement who simultaneously stood against racial prejudice while perpetuating heterosexism.
After a review of Rustin’s life and these historical events, one of the conclusions I have drawn is that history is complicated and at times, confusing. And individuals within history can also be complicated and confusing. How could good women and men, fighting against the terrible injustice of racism refuse to also stand against the mistreatment of their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers? How could a man like Rustin who could have easily risen to a more prominent role within the civil rights movement, consistently have taken controversial stands on issues that he knew would not endear himself to the masses? And where did Rustin, who had so much to lose and who had gained such widespread acclaim, find the courage to live openly as a gay man in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s prompting one friend and colleague to say, “He absolutely didn’t hide it, he’d never heard there was a closet.”
You have gathered here today to memorialize the life of this remarkable man. But ostensibly, you are also here today because you care about the issues upon us in the present…and those that face us in the future. Likewise, these issues can also be complex and confusing. How can I feel acceptance and friendship towards a particular group of people and then find myself judging someone from another group? How can I stay true to my deeply held religious convictions and yet take issue with teachings that suggest that gays and lesbians are innately wrong and sinful? How can I donate my time and money to charities and laudable causes and at the same time pay no regard to the child labor that produced the clothing and products that I purchase at my local discount store? How can I take full advantage of my male privilege and even use it to do good and yet daily ignore that women are still paid less than men for doing the same job? And how can I ever take for granted my opportunity for a quality American education while realizing that my mere presence on this campus places me amongst the global elite while millions fight daily for clean drinking water and a sustainable existence?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. And as much as we rightly memorialize and honor great men and women from our past that inspired and challenged us to live better, they didn’t have all the answers either. What they did do was speak. What they did do was act. What they did do was take risks for what they believed to be right. And when enough of them did that, things began to change. And when enough of us choose to continue to do that, change remains inevitable.
Understanding the life of Bayard Rustin is no simple task because he was not a simple man. And while I struggle to embrace this about Rustin and so many other historical figures, I also wonder how history will view us and our times? What will it say about the things that we acted upon and the things we chose to ignore? How will it judge us regarding the inconsistencies in our own lives and the contradictions in our ideologies? Again, I don’t know.
What I do know is that we have now. And amidst the complexity and confusion of our own times, I applaud each of you for your presence here today to support this event and for everything you do in attempting to make this world a better place for all people. I’m not sure what part this single act will hold in the larger play but it is something. And it signals an intent on your part to send a message and hopefully make a difference.
It is a moment to remember the past, as we continue to build our future…
November 27, 2012