Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and LGBTQ perspectives in the Black Freedom Struggle

Black and Gay?

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Bayard Rustin at news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington in the Statler Hotel, August 27, 1963. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BayardRustinAug1963-LibraryOfCongress_crop.jpg (PD).

“A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marks because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live” (p. 66, Last Interview). This abstract from James Baldwin’s interview from 1987 sums up the situation of black gays not only during the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960’s, but also long before and after  the Movement. James Baldwin was a famous writer, his novels Giovannis’s room (1956) and Another Country (1962) dealt with taboo themes like homosexuality and interracial relationships. Despite these topics, or maybe because of them, his novels became bestsellers and Baldwin was a popular guest in several tv-shows. His queerness and complex sexuality as parts of his identity are visible through his novels, but most works about the writer remain silent about this aspect of his life.

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James Baldwin (center) with Marlon Brando (right) and Charlton Heston (left) at the March on Washington, 08/28/1963. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heston_Baldwin_Brando_Civil_Rights_March_1963.jpg (PD).

Black Gays experienced injustice, mistrust and hate among the white society, as well as among black community. There were a lot of gay and lesbian people engaged at the movement (people of color as well as white people), but most of them were invisible. They operated in the background, away from the spotlight and the media.

The many fights of Bayard Rustin

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Preperations of March on Washington, Bayard Rustin (left)  and Cleveland Robinson (right), August 7, 1963. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:170_W_130_St.,_March_on_Washington.jpg (PD).

Bayard Rustin was maybe  the most famous participant homosexual among the movement, but only in the recent years historical research and broad public (re-)discovered him as an important historical person. Rustin organized and planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28th, 1963 and was a consultant of Martin Luther King. The government saw him as a threat to American society, not only because he was black but because he was gay and on top of that former member of the communist party. Although he gained national attention at this time, his homosexuality placed him in largely unseen roles before and after the march. Rustin faced homophobia outside and inside the civil rights movement.  “[H]is 1953 conviction of ‘public lewdness’ hung like a cloud over his accomplishments in an era with no tolerance for >perverts<“(p. 110, Queer America). Due to threats from other civil rights fighter and the government (the FBI had a big Files in which they spread awareness because of his “criminal” and homosexual background) Rustin resigned as Martin Luther King’s assistant in 1960. While the March on Washington has become a primary strategy for any movements, Rustin worked since the 1980’s as an advocate for gay and lesbian causes. He worked together with his partner Walter Neagle. As an interracial gay couple they faced oppression among several communities The Gay Liberation Movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was orientated on the Black Liberation Movement and especially on Rustin’s March on Washington. Like Bayard Rustin, many gay and lesbian activists gained their first movement experience during the Black Liberation Movement.

Rustin’s Legacy                                                                                                                     

After his death in 1987 president Ronald Reagan openly recognized Rustin’s as a leader of the black civil rights movement, but there is no mention about his sexuality although Rustin was openly gay. Reagan’s government is known for the support from anti-gay, right-wing and strictly religious groups as well as Reagan’s passivity during the outbreak of AIDS.

A_celebration_of_Bayard_Rustin_and_the_50th_Anniversary_of_the_1963_March_on_Washington_-_Library_of_Congress,_June_5,_2013
Broadsheet for a celebration of Bayard Rustin and the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington on June 05/2013. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_celebration_of_Bayard_Rustin_and_the_50th_Anniversary_of_the_1963_March_on_Washington_-_Library_of_Congress,_June_5,_2013.jpg (PD).

In 2013 his work was finally accomplished by the broad public, when the March on Washington celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. President Barack Obama awarded Bayard Rustin posthumously on November, 20 2013 with the Presidental Medal of Freedom. This time his homosexuality was not invisible, it was mentioned in several articles. The Medal was accepted by Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner of ten years at the time of Rustin’s death in 1987.

Bayard Rustin’s heritage lives on in every March on Washington and fight for equality, be it racial, sexual or economical equality.

 

 

 

 

References:

Baldwin, James/Troupe, Quincy.  James Baldwin: The Last Interview: and other Conversations, Brooklyn 2014.

Dreier, Peter. Obama Awards Bayard Rustin-the Man Behind the March-the Presidental Medal of Freedom, August 8th, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/bayard-rustin-presidential-medal-of-freedom_b_3731304.html. Accessed June 4th 2017.

Eaklor, Vicki L. Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century. Westport, 2008.

American Masters.  James Baldwin.  About the author. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/james-baldwin-about-the-author/59/.  Accessed June 04th 2017.

Associated Press. Reagan Praises Deceased Civil Rights Leader“, August 25th, 1987. https://web.archive.org/web/20160331134656/http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1987/Reagan-Praises-Deceased-Civil-Rights-Leader/id-96a87043e0eba7ae2215632d0e5230a5. Accessed June 4th 2017.

 

 

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