On March 17, 2012, at 1pm, several local LGBT activists and organizers met at The Milky Way, located at 284 Amory Street in Jamaica Plain. for “Brother Outside: The Life Of Bayard Rustin”, a PBS award-winning documentary, and Panel Discussion, in collaboration with the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition and MassEquality. This event was in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the ‘unknown hero’ of the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin.
Before the film began, everyone took a moment of silence, in remembrance of his accomplishments as a civil rights leader. The film was then shown, lasting approximately 2 hours, describing the life of Rustin through interviews, pictures, and video interviews and clips.
After cake was served to all the attendees of the event, it moved into the Panel Discussion with local LGBTQ leaders of color on how the legacy of Bayard Rustin in the fight for social justice and equality can be carried on. The panel began with an introduction on E. Denise Simmons, current Vice Mayor to Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis, six-term Cambridge City Councilor, and first openly lesbian African American mayor in the US, by Priscilla Lee, a teacher at the city’s Community Learning Center. Simmons then briefly went over the context of protesting, before the panelists introduced themselves. They were Daunsia Yancey, Student Activist and former coordinator of the Boston Alliance of GLBT Youth; Corey Yarbrough, Executive Director of the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition; Terhys Persad, a Field Director at MassEquality; and Karyn Smith, a Transgender Activist and Community Organizer.
Several questions were asked of the panelists. On the question of the importance of being out as a person of color, Karyn Smith responded with “I felt that it was very important. Sometimes you get held back on promotions, not because of your performance, but because of who you are.”
About people of color getting politically involved, Terhys Persad said “If we want to get more people involved with black LGBT issues, we should change the way we frame it to the community.”
The panel closed with Denise Simmons saying, “We just don’t just honor him today, but every day.”
Bayard Rustin had always been candid about his homosexuality, even though it was criminalized through much of the US at the time. In ’53, in Pasadena, California, Rustin was arrested for homosexual activity with two other men in a parked car. Originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of ‘sex perversion’ an served 60 days in jail. This lead to the public attention of his homosexuality for the first time.
Following this, he served as an unidentified member of the American Friends Service Committee’s task force. In ’56, he advised Martin Luther King Jr on Ghandian tactics, which ultimately convinced King to abandon armed protection, including a personal handgun. The following year, they began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (or SCLC). African American leaders at this time were concerned that Rustin’s sexual orientation would undermine support of the civil rights movement. Rustin’s resignation was later forced by U. S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (also a member of the board of the SCLC), in ’60 by threatening to discuss Rustin’s morals charges in Congress. Although it was a matter of public record, these charges had not been widely discussed outside the civil rights leadership.
Before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in ’63, Sen. Strom Thurmond rallied against him as a homosexual, and had the entire Pasadena arrest file entered into the record. Thurmond produced an FBI photograph of Rustin and King to try to imply there was a same-sex relationship between the two. Despite these allegations, Rustin remained instrumental in organizing the March. NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not want Rustin to receive any public credit for his role in planning the march. On September 6, ’63, however, Rustin and A. Philip Randolph appeared on the cover of Life Magazine as “the leaders” of the March.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Rustin worked to promote human rights and gay rights, including testifying on the New York City Gay Rights Bill, which was signed into law by April ’86.
Rustin leaves behind a strong legacy. Some of his accomplishments are:
- Proposing a march in protest of racial discrimination in the armed forces, then cancelling, when Roosevelt issued the Fair Employment Act, while working alongside A. Philip Randolph and A. J. Muste at the time.
- Working on strengthening the labor movement on both sides (political and economic) by supporting labor unions and social-democratic politics.
- Founder and director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which coordinated with ALF-CIO’s work on civil rights and social justice.
- Advocated closer ties between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party, following the passage of the ’64 Civil Rights Act and ’65 Voting Rights Act.
- Organized the first Freedom Rides, to test the ruling of Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia by the Supreme Court, which banned racial discrimination in interstate travel.
- Traveling to California to protect the property of Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned in interment camps.