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Learning About Bayard Rustin

Posted on August 25, 2013 at 10:00 AM

         “Bayard Rustin, what do you know about him, Cecil?” I said to my husband. “He was active in the Civil Rights Movement.  That’s about all I know.”  We were on our way to a 2 p.m. showing of the documentary, “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” at Pasadena’s Allendale Branch Library, part of a 50th anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

          We had not been to this library before.  There was a tiny area with about sixty chairs squeezed in.  By two o’clock every seat was taken.  We fit right in with the older, white progressives, who predominated.  Several African Americans including Elizabeth, a soloist from our church, were sprinkled in. 

          Professor Peter Dreier from nearby Occidental College introduced the film with some background on Bayard Rustin: African American, raised by his grandparents in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a talented organizer committed to equality and justice, a key strategist in developing nonviolent tactics for the Civil Rights Movement, key organizer of the breathtaking 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech,and he was gay.  He was always kept in the background because of that.

          The film was feature length. As I came to know this man, Bayard Rustin, I became caught up in his extraordinary life:  a pacifist during WWII, for which he was sent to prison; his fearlessness at Civil Rights demonstrations in the South; his faithfulness in working for justice throughout his life; and his courage in being himself, a gay man, during the decades in which sex between men was illegal in every state of the Union.  In 1953, during a City crack-down, he was arrested in Pasadena.  By this point in the film I was in tears.  A man two rows ahead of me had pulled out a handkerchief and was wiping his eyes.  Other folks were crying, too. 

          When the program was over I felt a deep regret about how Rustin was treated in life; he died in 1983. I don’t know what others there will do, but I can honor Rustin by paying attention to the people and injustices Rustin cared about so passionately and keep forging links to his work. 




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