History Q&A: Elizabethtown College's Michael G. Long on Bayard Rustin

Editor and author of I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters and Martin Luther King, Jr., Homosexuality, and the Early Gay Rights Movement, Long shares his insights on the civil rights leader.

An associate professor of religious studies and peace-and-conflict studies at Elizabethtown College, Michael G. Long is the author or editor of numerous books on civil rights, religion and politics in mid-century America, including I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters and Martin Luther King, Jr., Homosexuality, and the Early Gay Rights Movement. Long blogs for the Huffington Post and has appeared on C-SPAN and NPR.

MLT: What is your interest in Bayard Rustin?
ML: Beyond the basic fact that he’s a near-perfect confluence of my topical interests, Rustin is downright fascinating. As an openly gay African-American committed to pacifism, socialism, Quaker spirituality and numerous artistic expressions, Rustin was one of the most colorful individuals of his time.

MLT: What was your first exposure to him?
ML: I first became familiar with Rustin in my studies of Martin Luther King Jr. When Rustin went to Montgomery, Ala., during the early stages of the bus boycott, he discovered that King was not wholly committed to pacifism. Rustin played a key role in helping King understand the importance of nonviolence, not only as a tactic but also as a way of life.

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MLT: Why is it important that Rustin’s story be celebrated?
ML: Consider his leadership of the March on Washington—that pinnacle event of protest politics in U.S. history. In effect, Rustin taught so many of us how to come together and harness our power, how to march, and how to protest for our rights in a way that captures and shapes the nation’s attention. For me, that alone makes Rustin’s story worth celebrating as a national treasure.

MLT: So why was his story in the shadows for so long?
ML: Perhaps some of it relates to his work as a behind-the-scenes strategist. Unlike King, Rustin was not the leader of one of the main civil rights organizations. And unlike Adam Clayton Powell Jr., of Harlem, Rustin was neither a famous black preacher nor a political leader. But Rustin has also been in the shadows because his colleagues often deliberately pushed him there. After Harlem Congressman Powell threatened in 1960 to tell the media that King and Rustin were having a gay affair, King banned Rustin from his inner circle for a couple years. King was concerned about being negatively tainted by Rustin’s homosexuality. Add to this the sad reality that conservative ministers in King’s circle were uncomfortable with the openly gay Rustin, and it’s easy to see why he was and has been so marginalized at various points.

MLT: What does this say about Rustin? About King? 
ML: Rustin soldiered on, and when King called on him again, during the 1963 Birmingham campaign, Rustin came roaring back. Let’s face it: King was not a brilliant strategist. Thank goodness he was big enough to recognize that he and the rest of the movement needed Rustin’s vision and tactical brilliance. And those qualities are what led King and other leaders to give Rustin the green light in organizing the 1963 March on Washington in eight short weeks.

MLT: What was the most interesting revelation you uncovered in Rustin’s letters? 
ML: Given my interest in progressive religion, I really enjoyed reading the ways in which Rustin grounded his civil rights work in the Quaker and black church principles that he learned from his grandmother in West Chester. No doubt, Rustin was political to the bone, but in the deepest recesses of his heart, he was also a spiritual man who shaped his work in ways that reflected and expressed his faith-fueled convictions about the unity of the human family and the importance of nonviolence.

MLT: If Rustin was alive today, what would he say about where we are?
ML: Not long before he died, Rustin identified the gay rights movement as the new frontier in civil and human rights. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t be satisfied by recent gains, but I also have a hunch that he would be deeply disturbed by the ongoing failure of Congress to pass legislation protecting these folks from discrimination in employment. Rustin, after all, was a labor leader. Finally, let’s hazard a guess that Rustin would be angered by the crushing fact that African Americans were hit hardest by the subprime mortgage fiasco perpetrated by predatory bankers, that nearly a third of African Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed, and that, in the wake of the recession, the median wealth of white households was 20 times that of black households. Rustin understood—perhaps better than any other civil rights leader of his time—that racial justice and economic justice are inextricably connected. What use is integration in Main Line restaurants, after all, if one lacks the money required to buy anything on the menu?

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