Tags: adam clayton powell, bayard rustin, civil rights movement, homophobia, homosexuality, lgbt, march on washington, martin luther king
Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe
This month around the country LGBTQ communities will be celebrating Bayard Rustin’s 100th birthday anniversary. Next month, AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts will have their annual Bayard Rustin Breakfast. And, last month, “State of the Re:Union,” a nationally aired radio show distributed by NPR and PRX was awarded first place in the Excellence in Radio category from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association for the Black History Month special they did on Bayard Rustin, titled “Bayard Rustin – Who Is This Man?”
To date, he’s still largely an unknown because of the heterosexism that has canonized the history of last century’s black civil rights movement.
Born March 17, 1912 in the Quaker-settled area of West Chester Pennsylvania, one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, is Bayard Rustin’s beginning. A handsome six-footer who possessed both athletic and academic prowess is most noted as the strategist and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King onto a world stage. Rustin also played a key role in helping King develop the strategy of nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which successfully dismantled the long-standing Jim Crow ordinance of segregated seating on public conveyances in Alabama.
One of my favorite quotes by Rustin is this: “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” For LGBTQ African Americans Rustin is the only open gay hero we have, and for many of us his work and words give us courage to fight homophobia in ourselves and in our communities.
In a letter to a friend explaining his predilection toward gay sex Rustin wrote, “I must pray, trust, experience, dream, hope and all else possible until I know clearly in my own mind and spirit that I have failed to become heterosexual, if I must fail, not because of a faint heart, or for lack of confidence in my true self, or for pride, or for emotional instability, or for moral lethargy, or any other character fault, but rather, because I come to see after the most complete searching that the best for me lies elsewhere.”
During the Civil Rights movement Bayard Rustin was always the man behind the scene, and a large part of that had to due with the fact that he was gay. As Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers and friend of Rustin stated in a review on Jervis Anderson’s biography Bayard Rustin: The Troubles I’ve Seen that Rustin “…was the quintessential outsider—a black man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political, social dissident, and a homosexual.”
Many African American ministers involved in the Civil Rights movement would have nothing to do with Rustin, and spread rumors throughout the movement that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.
In a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in Open Hands, a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalls that difficult period quite vividly. Rustin stated, “Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality. Martin set up a committee to discover what he should do. They said that, despite the fact that I had contributed tremendously to the organization…they thought I should separate myself from Dr. King. This was the time when [Rev. Adam Clayton] Powell threatened to expose my so-called homosexual relationship with Dr. King.”
When Rustin pushed him on the issue to speak up on his behalf King did not. In John D’Emilo’s book Lost Prophet: The Life and times of Bayard Rustin he wrote the following on the matter:
“Rustin offered to resign in the hope that his would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay.
‘Basically King said I can’t take on two queers at on time,’ one of Rustin’s associated recollected later.”
When Rustin was asked about MLK’s views on gays in a March 1987 interview with Redvers Jean Marie he stated, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness…”
As a March on Washington volunteer in 1963 Bayard Rustin was Eleanor Holmes Norton’s boss. The renowned Congresswoman of D.C. recalls the kerfuffle concerning Rustin’s sexuality.
“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” Norton stated to Steve Hendrix in a 2011 interview. “It flared up and then flared right back down,” Norton stated. “Thank God, because there was no substitute for Bayard.”
The association of Rustin to the March was inseparable to those who worked closely with him. “The 53-year-old known at the time as “Mr. March-on-Washington” was a lanky, cane-swinging, poetry-quoting black Quaker intellectual who wore his hair in a graying pompadour, ” Hendrix wrote in Bayard Rustin: Organizer of the March on Washington.
“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” stated Norton. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”
Rustin was a complex man and often times seemingly a contrarian. To the surprise of many, Rustin was an opponent to “identity politics,” and most likely would not have been waving a rainbow flag or approve of queer studies departments at colleges and universities. To many conservative African Americans Rustin wasn’t only “queer” in the literal sense but was perceived also as one who didn’t have any of the approved and appropriate black sensibilities.
“Rustin’s steadfast opposition to identity politics also came under criticism by exponents of the developing Black Power movement. His critical stance toward affirmative action programs and black studies departments in American universities was not a popular viewpoint among many of his fellow Afro-Americans, and as at various other times of his life Rustin found himself to a certain extent isolated,” Buzz Haughton wrote in his article “Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Leader,” in the Fall 1999 issue of Quaker Studies.
As we comb through the annals of history more of us are learning that Rustin was also one of the tallest trees in our forest.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian. She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)
Tags: bayard rustin, bernice king, bishop eddie long, black church, civil rights movement, eddie glaude jr., homophobia, martin luther king jr
Finally, Black Civil Rights Movement Is Dying
Last week, Martin Luther King tributes were taking place across the nation. And the spirit of MLK and the courageous acts of our foremothers and forefathers of the civil rights movement are etched indelibly in many of our hearts.
But the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King’s era of the 1960’s, many would say, is dying a slow and necessary death.
And for many African Americans of younger generations, who are now the beneficiaries of the racial gains from the Movement, feeling the Movement’s’ slow death is like a welcoming boulder gradually being lifted from their shoulders, especially for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
With many key African American organizations and institutions of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s still resistant to address this generation’s outwardness about their sexual orientations and gender expressions as a civil rights issues, these organizations and institutions have not only lost their mantle as part of a prophetic justice movement for this day and age, but many of our present day key African American organizations and institutions of the Movement have also lost the moral high ground that was once so easily associated with them.
For example, the bedrock institution in the African American community, we all know by now, is the Black church. And it was also the bedrock of the civil rights movement. In March of 2010, African American Princeton’s Eddie Glaude Jr. published an obituary for the black church in the Huffington Post titled, “The Black Church is Dead.” Glaude talked about several of the problems facing the African American community, but no where in his piece did he talk about anti-gay ministers and homophobic congregrations.
According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. The Pew report also showed that since 2008, African-American Protestants are less likely than other Protestant groups to believe that LGBTQ people should have equal rights. And since hot-button issues like gay adoption and marriage equality have become more prominent, support for LGBTQ rights among African-American Protestants has dipped as low as 40 percent.
A groundbreaking study in July 2010 came out titled, “Black Lesbians Matter” examining the unique experiences, perspectives, and priorities of the Black Lesbian Bisexual and Trans community. One of the key findings of the survey revealed that there is a pattern of higher suicide rates among black LBTs. Scholars have primarily associated these higher suicide rates with one’s inability to deal with “coming out” and the Black Church’s stance on homosexuality.
But with various pockets within a community homophobic, clerics closeted and a church on the “down-low” about sexuality it cannot save itself from itself. And perhaps as many of us LGBTQ Christians in the Black Church have known but Glaude finally stated it: “The Black Church is Dead.”
But with a dead church so, too, will follow important historic organizations that were birthed out of the civil rights movement and headed by black homophobic ministers.
One example is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
“We should’ve closed it down years ago,’’ Andrew Young, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., said after Rev. Bernice King announced to the Atlanta Journal Constitution this week that she will not be taking her oath as SCLC’s president. “I saw this as a lost cause a long time ago.’’
But many in the LGBTQ community felt, with Rev, Bernice King at the helm of the organization, queer justice was certain to be a lost cause.
In 2009, Rev. Bernice King was bestowed the honor to be the eighth president and first women to head SCLC, co-founded by her father, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While it isn’t clear if Bernice King was a legacy pick for SCLC, it is, however, very clear to many of us in our LGBTQ communities that she would not be carrying out her father’s legacy.
Rev. Bernice King’s track record concerning LGBTQ civil rights has been less than humane and antithetical to the legacies of both her parents.
For example, Rev. Bernice King’s most audacious sign of desecrating her father’s legacy was the December 2004 march titled, “Stop the Silence,” promoting an anti-gay agenda.
Beginning the protest march by lighting a torch at her father’s grave site and then passing it on to her spiritual mentor and the march organizer, Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, who has recently been embroiled in a sex scandal for molesting pubescent boys from his church, whom he calls “spiritual sons,” King stated that “I know in my sanctified soul that he (Dr. King) did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.” Therefore, given the homophobic vitriol Rev. Bernice King has spewed out over the years, the LGBTQ community is always braced to see what next she’ll say and do, and especially if given the bully pulpit she would have had as president of SCLC.
Comprised mostly of conservative clergy and parishioners, our churches and historic justice institutions remain in an intentional time warp. With its refusal to speak on present-day issues not only plaguing the African American community but plaguing all Americans, these churches and organizations exist as a visiting museum tethered to the 1960’s civil rights era rather than exist as an organization faced toward the challenges of today.
Like the many who gathered last week to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, I, too, am committed to the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I not only miss King’s wisdom, I miss the sound of his voice, the things he said with that voice, and the choir that resounded within him with that voice.
King once told a racially-mixed audience that “Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice.”
If King were alive today he would want us to look at homophobia.
Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian. She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)