Pioneer and pariah

Brother Outsider offers a touching portrait of Bayard Rustin, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement

Even on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—a march he organized—the name Bayard Rustin rings hardly any bells.

Rustin was an intellectual, an iconoclast, a civil rights leader, and a pacifist. He was also openly gay. He fought segregation through peaceful, civil disobedience and was a key advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., yet fellow activists held him at arm’s length because of his homosexuality. He was a conscientious objector during World War II but refused to condemn the Vietnam War. And he built alliances with the trade union movement, only to be accused of selling out black interests.

He was a complicated man.

Brother Outsider, a 2003 documentary by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates, successfully chronicles Rustin’s life and examines, if not explains, his many contradictions. The film was screened this week at Maysles Cinema in New York and had recently run on PBS.

Rustin grew up in West Chester, PA, and was a star student at the local, integrated, high school. (Black students were permitted to attend, reportedly because there were too few of them to justify building a separate school.) The son of a single mother, he was brought up by his maternal grandparents and strongly influenced by his grandmother Julia Rustin’s Quaker beliefs: pacifism, equality, and brotherhood. As a teenager, arrested for walking into a white-only restaurant, he convinced his neighbors, both white and black, to bail him out. No cause was too small to interest him: An accomplished tenor, Rustin studied music at Wilberforce University but was asked to leave after he started a protest against the college’s poor food.

After a brief stint in the Communist Party, Rustin found his way to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and became its race relations secretary, touring the country and giving talks. He served three years in jail for refusing to fight in the second world war, then organized and took part in the first Freedom Ride. In 1956, Rustin effectively introduced Gandhian tactics to the civil rights movement as an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott: King had posted armed guards outside his house; Rustin, who had met several of Gandhi’s disciples in India in 1948, convinced King otherwise. Rustin remained one of King’s most trusted advisors until the latter’s death in 1968.

Yet the documentary also explores Rustin’s darker side. He was open and truthful about his sexuality at a time when such truthfulness came at a price: He was arrested for a homosexual act in 1953, and the conviction hung over him for the rest of his life. One of Rustin’s former partners talks about FOR leader A.J. Muste’s numerous attempts to convince the couple to break up, because Muste disapproved of homosexuality. Excerpts from Rustin’s extensive FBI file, which was some 10,000 pages long, reveal that US authorities considered him a pervert as well as a radical. Most poignantly, Rustin himself was forced to concede that his sexuality could be used to discredit the causes he supported.

After his death, in 1987, public discomfort with his sexual orientation meant he soon faded from the list of well-known civil rights campaigners. That obscurity was the motivation behind the film, said co-director Bennett Singer, who spoke after the Maysles screening. Singer said that he and co-director Nancy Kates wanted to make a film that looked at the intersection of Rustin’s different identities as an African American and gay American.

They succeeded. The film is a solidly researched biopic, featuring interviews with friends and activists from almost every part of Rustin’s life. It uses archival footage of him, interspersed with first-person voice-overs culled from his writings, to allow him to speak directly to the audience. It is illuminating, powerful, and at times, heartbreaking.

Rustin is finally beginning to receive the recognition he deserves: On August 8, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The New York Times once praised Rustin as a man of intellect and foresight who didn’t “lead so much as he influenced,” saying, “Other civil rights leaders wielded power; Bayard Rustin wielded influence.” Brother Outsider makes one wonder what Rustin’s life might have been like if prejudice hadn’t prevented him from leading too.

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , , , ,