Film critic and Presbyterian pastor Edward McNulty makes the connections
January 24, 2024
Virtually every adult American knows that Mahalia Jackson sang at the 1963 March on Washington and that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
But who can name the genius of organizing the massive event, without whom there would not have been a march? That man was Bayard Rustin, often called “the forgotten hero” of the civil rights movement.
Film director George C. Wolf hopes to bring Rustin out of the shadows with his film “Rustin,” which is streaming on Netflix. The film focuses upon the few months leading up to that remarkable date of Aug. 28, 1963, when the number of people showing up in Washington far exceeded the hopes of the planners — somewhere around 250,000.
The film has a small connection with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that shows up at a little over one hour and 32 minutes into the film.
Thousands of people arrived in Washington, D.C., early on the morning of Aug 28, 1963, to join the March. Most of them were Black. But some of them were white, perhaps the most prominent in the very front row of the marchers. He wore a black suit with a white clergy collar and what looks like a Panama hat atop his head. And though this is all we see of him in the film, he played a much bigger role in the actual planning of that March — and, before King’s stirring oration, even gave a brief speech following A. Philip Randolph’s opening remarks.
When you look at the film’s cast list — way down on it because the actor was given no lines in the film — you can see that this white marcher is the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, played by Christopher Anglim. Blake had been serving as General Assembly Stated Clerk since 1951, first of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and then of the merged United Presbyterian Church. He also was president of the National Council of Churches from 1954 to 1957 and then became chair of the NCC’s Commission on Religion and Race. This latter must have impelled him to become more active in racial justice, which resulted in many conservative Presbyterians condemning his actions — especially when he joined picketers at a segregated amusement park in Maryland on July 4, 1963, and was arrested. That story was reported throughout the country, raising a storm of protests among his detractors. One wrote that he was delighted Blake was in jail, calling him “a disgrace to the Presbyterian Church” and “a scallywag.”
In “Rustin,” we learn that some of the leaders of the civil rights organizations did not want Rustin as head organizer because he was gay — the man was never closeted and was not ashamed of the fact. To its credit, the film explores this side of Rustin’s life, though mostly focusing on the complex planning of Rustin and a host of young and older leaders and volunteers leading up to the massive March on Washington.
At one point, when Rustin was rejected as leader and A. Philip Randolph was elected to replace him, the latter’s first act was to appoint Rustin as his deputy, with full power to oversee all the details of organizing the event. About two months before the March, the committee invited four white people who supported their cause to join them — Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers; Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress; and Eugene Carson Blake.
Blake was so prominent that he was among the few leaders to speak before King concluded the event. Blake’s speech was short. He knew he was not the headliner. And although the huge crowd was something to boast about, the speech was contrite, not triumphant. In the first half he wished that he could speak for all Christians, and if all church and synagogue members would join them in their struggle, then the battle would be won.
McNulty’s long review of “Rustin” is available at visualparables.org.
The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister, was for many years the film critic for Presbyterians Today. He has been posting weekly film reviews at his Visual Parables site for 32 years. His three Westminster John Knox film books are “Faith & Film,” “Praying the Movies” and “Praying the Movies II.” His newest book is “Jesus Christ, Movie Star.”
Today’s Focus: Presbyterian connection in the Netflix film ‘Rustin’
Let us join in prayer for:
Let us pray
Creator God, we pray for discernment and guidance as we try to walk the narrow path that has been put before us. We know that it will be difficult but that the rewards will be great. It is in your Son’s name that we pray. Amen.
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