As a gay African American, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin faced discrimination his entire life—sometimes, Walter Naegle reminds us, among his fellow Friends. Walter, Rustin’s partner and companion in his final decades, discusses his vital contributions to Quaker testimony of peace, integrity and equality.
“Bayard believed in the oneness of the human family, in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people,” Walter says. “He believed in the power of nonviolence which comes out of that belief in the oneness of all people.… He saw everybody as equal in the eyes of the Divine.”
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Well, as an African-American gay man, and to a certain degree as a Quaker, Bayard was faced with discrimination and with prejudice throughout his life — certainly throughout the early part of his life. Being any of those things, including being Quaker, was not the most common thing in the American society. And so he struggled with discrimination in the larger society but also in the religious community and within the Quaker community itself. And certainly as a gay man, I mean, there was no question that he was discriminated against. Not necessarily always in this crude or overt kind of fashion but you know, there was always this kind of subtly undertone about well, what do we do with Bayard?
Looking at the Legacy of Bayard Rustin
My name is Walter Naegle. I live in New York City, in Manhattan. I am currently employed by the Religious Society of Friends in New York Yearly Meeting. I am not officially a Quaker and I’m not a member of a monthly Meeting but my late partner Bayard Rustin was a longtime member of Fifteenth Street Meeting here in New York City.
Who was Bayard Rustin?
Bayard Rustin was an African-American gay male Quaker who was very influential in the African-American Civil Rights Movement in our country. That is primarily what people would associate him with because he was the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. King gave his most famous speech. But Bayard had been involved in struggles for social justice for 20+ years before that and certainly 25 years after that.
Facing Discrimination as a Black Gay Man
Bayard was working very closely with the– well, he was in the Fellowship of Reconciliation and he was on the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and in 1953 Bayard was on a speaking engagement in Pasadena, California for the American Friends Service Committee and he was arrested on what was then called a morals charge. He was caught having sexual relations in a public place. It was in the middle of the night; it was on a dark street, it was not out in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon or anything like that, but nevertheless he was arrested. And I guess it was in 1953 or 1954, shortly before the African-American struggle really took off in Montgomery, a small group of Quakers gathered at Pendle Hill (a study center in Pennsylvania) to produce a document on what was then called the Cold War, or the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. And after several days of meeting and discernment and discussion, they produced a document called “Speak Truth to Power” which I have right here. Despite the fact that Bayard was a very important part of that group — in fact, he has been credited with coining the phrase “speak truth to power,”– his name was left off the document. So, you know, I see that certainly as a form of discrimination and persecution if you will because all of the people (or most of the people; at least the ones I’ve spoken to on the committee) felt that he made an invaluable contribution to that document and it would not have been the document that it was without Bayard’s contribution. Now in all fairness to the AFSC, they restored his name to the document in 2012 which was the centennial year of Bayard’s birth.
Quaker Values in Bayard Rustin’s Life
Well when people think about Bayard Rustin I think there are a couple of things that are important which might not be so readily available when you Google him if you will, or when you do some of the research. One of them I think is the importance of the Quaker values, the Quaker value system instilled in him since he was a young person. Bayard believed in the oneness of the human family, in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. He believed in the power of nonviolence which comes out of that belief in the oneness of all people. And he saw everybody as his brothers and sisters. It was not just about Black folks or gay folks or any subgroup that he might have been a member of. He saw everybody certainly as equal in the eyes of the divine, if you will. The other thing I think that would be important is that, you know, Bayard was a very gentle and loving and fun, very humorous person. You know, he worked with young people and recruited young people, and young people flocked to him because at that time he was still seen as a very radical figure and I think young people tend to be attracted to those most radical voices, and so a lot of those people remember him fondly even though some of them disagreed with him later on as they developed and they went their separate ways from some of Bayard’s ideas. But they still remembered that quality of his helping them. And so he continues– his voice continues to be one that people want to hear from and listen to and serve as a source of inspiration.
- 1) In what ways do Friends continue to both uplift and discriminate against marginalized members of their communities? How do we address this when we see it in action, and how do we address it when we look back on our history?
- 2) Walter says that Bayard’s voice “continues to be one that people want to hear from and listen to and serve as a source of inspiration.” Who is a figure in your life that serves as a source of inspiration, and why?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
3 thoughts on “Looking at the Legacy of Bayard Rustin”
A fascinating piece; it left me wanting to know more about Bayard – a task for me I guess.
I thought of trying to document the life of Dana Raphael, long time member of Wilton Quaker Meeting who passed a few years ago at 91. She was a student of Margaret Mead, an anthropoligist. She founded the Human Lactation Institute to promote breast feeding all over the world and was the first to coin the word “doula” in the US after seeing the role in women in Greece who cared for new mothers while the new mothers cared for their babies.
there is much more including double dates with Lenny Bernstein and her own interst in ballet and achievements as a pianist.
Wow – wanted to BE Margaret Mead (and/or Jane Goodall) a FEW years back – such amazing human beings who seem to have gotten about life what truly MATTERS very early on. Thanks for this sharing!
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