In celebration of black history month.
The best way to destroy a culture is to deny, suppress, or appropriate that people’s history. A culture without its art, without its myths, without its heroes will soon wither and die. For millennia indigenous peoples all over the world have suffered this kind of cultural rape at the hands of more powerful invaders. In America, slavery and segregation did its worst for African culture. And, in a rather different way, homophobia robbed LGBT people of their sense of self.
Do you know who Bayard Rustin is? I’m gonna guess not. That’s no surprise really, because his life exemplifies the impact that both segregation and homophobia has had on our culture. Despite being pivotal to in the struggle for civil and sexual rights for well over 50 years, he is all but forgotten now. His memory has been whitewashed, if not totally wiped out, and our culture is the poorer because of it. But thanks to Time On Two Crosses this American patriot is reinstated to his rightful place in the American pantheon.
Time On Two Crosses showcases the extraordinary career of this black, gay civil rights pioneer. The book combines classic texts ranging in topic from Gandhi’s impact on African Americans, white supremacists in congress, the antiwar movement, and the assassination of Malcolm X, with never-before published selections on the call for gay rights, Louis Farrakhan, affirmative action, AIDS, and women’s rights.
Bayard Rustin was a key civil rights strategist and humanitarian whose staunch advocacy of nonviolent resistance shaped the course of social protests from the 1950’s through the close of the twentieth century. And he was also openly gay at a time when that simply didn’t happen, especially among people of color.
Perhaps because of his unique position at the crux of the struggle for civil rights and sexual rights, Rustin insisted on the interconnectedness of all human rights and justice movements. He focuses not only on overturning racism and prejudice but also the systemic causes of injustice and disparity in the US and around the world. And his message on many issues is as relevant today as it was in his lifetime. He writes of himself:
“I am Bayard Rustin, Chairman of the Randolph Institute and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which is composed of over 150 national groups dedicated to human rights for all. As one who has been active in the struggle to extend democracy to all Americans for over fifty years I am opposed to any attempt to amend the recently enacted law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
I have been arrested twenty-four times in the struggle for civil and human rights. My first arrest was in 1928 merely for distributing leaflets on behalf of Al Smith’s candidacy for President in a climate of anti-Catholic hysteria. Since that time I have fought against religious intolerance, political harassment, and racism both here and abroad. I have fought against untouchability in India, against tribalism in Africa, and have sought to ensure that refugees coming to our shores are not subject to the same types of bigotry and intolerance from which they fled. As a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council I have fought anti-Semitism not only in the United States but around the world.”
But Rustin’s sexual openness and his controversial political positions came at a great personal cost. He wound up behind bars for practicing his nonviolent Quaker faith (from 1944 to 1946 in a Pennsylvania prison for conscientiously objecting to serving in World War II) and for practicing homosexuality (60 days in a California jail for “sex perversion” in 1953). And his many achievements — like pioneering one of the first Freedom Rides, refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus in 1942, more than a dozen years before Rosa Parks did, and helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition to support the efforts of a then young, largely unknown minister named Martin Luther King Jr. — often were tainted under the threat of exposure for his unpopular behavior and criminal convictions.
Bayard Rustin introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to the precepts of nonviolence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thereby launching the birth of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955. When that movement needed a man who could get things done, even his detractors acknowledged he was the best organizer in the country. He was the man who was able to turn out 200,000 people on the Capitol Mall in an orderly fashion when no one else had ever done such a thing. He singlehandedly created the blueprint for the modern American mass political rally. The 1963 March on Washington was the pinnacle of his notoriety.
Few African Americans engaged in as broad a protest agenda as did Rustin; fewer still enjoyed his breadth of influence in virtually every political sector, working with world leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, President Lyndon Johnson, and Golda Meir. Yet, for all his influence and all his tireless efforts, Rustin remained an outsider in black civil rights circles because they refused to accept his homosexuality, which remained a point of contention among black church leaders, a controversy that sometimes even embroiled Dr. King himself.
The very people who he was fighting for shunned him. He was indeed the proverbial prophet “not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house”. (Mark 6:4)
For example, in 1960, Rustin and MLK were preparing to lead a protest of African Americans outside the Democratic National Convention. This would have deeply embarrassed the leading elected black politician of the day, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. Powell threatened to spread a rumor that Rustin was having a sexual relationship with King. King canceled the protest, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization he helped found. Bayard Rustin felt that his homosexuality, which he never tried to hide, put him in a unique position, a minority within a minority, as it were.
That year was not the first time Rustin was forced to negotiate how much sex could be a part of his life. After his 1953 arrest, in which he’d been picked up with two men in the back seat of a car in Pasadena, California, he wrote, “Sex must be sublimated if I am to live in this world longer.”
Though marginalized by the Civil Rights movement he helped found he was not embittered by the experience. Yet, when one lives in a society in which they’re constantly being told that they’re less than or that they’re not as good as, because of being black, or a Jew, or gay, or anything else deemed less than, a certain amount of the negation is bound to get internalized. That can’t be helped.
Despite it all, Rustin remained upbeat. In 1986, just a year before he died, Rustin gave a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in which he exhorted gay people to “recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”
Veering into the economics of poverty, Rustin said, “You will not feed people à la the philosophy of the Reagan administration. Imagine a society that takes lunches from school children. Do you really think it’s possible for gays to get civil rights in that kind of society?”
His thoughtful writing ennobles us all. Rustin never fails to come down on the proper side of a moral or ethical question, no matter whom it may offend or support. He was willing to stand up for people — even though they had mistreated him — if it was a matter of principle.
Rustin’s legacy doesn’t live in the past, but in the present and future of America. His work linking sexual, racial, and economic rights was not only forward-thinking in 1963, but it is also forward-thinking today.
“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” Rustin said in one of his most famous quotes.
Time On Two Crosses is the first comprehensive collection of Bayard Rustin’s writings ever published, comprising forty-eight essays, speeches, and interviews, many of which were never widely available. From the birth of nonviolent direct action to the rise of Black Power, Rustin’s writings function as a road map for the meandering course of the black protest movement over the past century.
As a gay man, I found Bayard Rustin’s writing fascinating and uplifting. They give an unvarnished look into the civil rights movement through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and also a view into the heart and mind of one of the most remarkable men of our time. The book also includes twenty-five photos from the Rustin estate and a foreword by Barack Obama, and an afterword by Barney Frank.
Bayard Rustin is a true hero for the ages. And Time On Two Crosses is a marvelous and edifying read.