Dr. Michael Long shares stories and scholarship on the subject of the Netflix film ‘Rustin’
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Last week as part of the lead-up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship offered an informative webinar featuring author and scholar Dr. Michael Long, who most recently edited “Bayard Rustin: A Legacy of Protest and Politics” about the man most responsible for organizing the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
PPF’s new executive director, the Rev. Dr. Laurie Lyter Bright, and PPF member the Rev. Bruce Gillette interviewed Long and fielded questions and comments from those engaged in the Zoom call. View the webinar here.
Long said Rustin, a gay man, was “really interested in the convergence of social justice issues” that marked Rustin’s devotion to causes including democratic socialism, pacifism and LGBTQ rights.
It was Rustin who helped organize the Freedom Riders, taught King about nonviolence and about being, as Long put it, “someone committed to peace as a way of life. Rustin wasn’t alone in that, but he was a major player.”
Rustin played a key role creating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Long said he saw King as someone who was “charismatic” and could “bring disparate groups together. He wanted to elevate King to the national stage to elevate civil rights.”
Even during what was considered “The Good War,” World War II, Rustin “believed you could be nonviolent while not being a pacifist,” Long said. “He saw nonviolence as a strategy and a tactic, and pacifism as a way of life.” Rustin claimed conscientious objector status with his draft board, later leaving that status behind “because he did not want to participate in the war effort in any way,” Long said.
He could have served as a medic or in a work camp, but refused, and was sentenced to three years in prison. “He said following Jesus means I’m not able to kill anybody or support the war effort,” Long said. “It’s one of the few places where Rustin writes about Jesus specifically.”
Rustin was reared in the home of his grandparents, Janifer Rustin and Julia Davis Rustin. His grandmother was a Quaker and his grandfather a member of the AME Church. “From the AME side he heard the story of Moses and the Exodus time and again. He applied Quaker lessons to what he’s learning with the AMEs,” Long said. “He devotes his life to fighting for the liberty of enslaved people for equality, dignity and the peaceable kingdom we should all live in.”
When it comes to planning and organizing the 1963 march, Long said one of Rustin’s most troubling intersections is with civil rights advocate Anna Arnold Hedgeman. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, had appointed her to help organize the march, and she was responsible for turning out up to 30,000 of the 250,000 participants, Long said. She believed that Black women, including Dr. Dorothy Height, should have a speaking role at the gathering, but her views “were shut down by Rustin, Randolph and other leaders,” Long said.
“Rustin says, ‘We have Mahalia Jackson, who sang beautiful spirituals that day,’” Long said. “Hedgeman says, ‘It’s great she’s singing, but we want to speak.’” Hedgeman wins on inclusion, Long said, and Daisy Bates organizes the lifting up of heroines of the day. However, “her speech was written by a white man. I say this to highlight women struggled to have a prominent place in the civil rights movement,” Long said. “I will emphasize Ella Baker was a magnificent player in the civil rights movement. She and Rustin worked to establish the SCLC, but she was never elevated to the status of other leaders. Rustin had enormous respect for her but had a mixed record with regard to women’s leadership.”
Rustin “was really a unique being in so many ways,” Long said. “He’s not wearing his sexuality on his sleeve. He considered it a private affair, as did so many in his generation.” If Long could ask him anything, it would be this: Why didn’t you become part of one of the gay rights movements of the time, such as the Gay Activists Alliance?
“He’s supportive of those rights, of course,” Long said, but “they were largely white and middle- and upper-class.”
The March on Washington “was the first time many Americans heard a critique of capitalism,” according to Long. While Rustin asked people to go “straight home” after the march, he himself stuck around to attend a conference on democratic socialism.
“If you watch the movie, (“Rustin,” available on Netflix) you might freeze him at the March on Washington,” Long said. Many people have done the same with King, and with Jackie Robinson when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Long said. “My fear is we will ignore Rustin’s teachings and his work to enact principles of nonviolence and democratic socialism every day.”
When a webinar participant mentioned Joan Baez, Long said she performed during a preliminary to the March on Washington. During the march itself, the program blended speeches, prayers, meditations, spirituals and other music. “It was a religious experience. Rustin put that together,” Long said. “You can see people waving their hands, weeping and falling to their knees.” Last year during the 60th anniversary celebration, “there wasn’t that blend, and I wish we would bring that back.,” Long said. “Rustin has this sense of appealing to people’s minds and hearts.”
Asked about Rustin’s legacy, Long said it’s “unfulfilled.”
“In many ways, those of us here today are his legacy — people interested in his life who are embodying and enacting much of what he believed,” Long said. “We still don’t have a law that bans discrimination against LGBTQ people, which baffles me.”
After the Watts Rebellion in 1965, King and Rustin journeyed to Los Angeles “to mix with the people,” Long said. “Rustin understood it was a cry of despair because people weren’t listening to them. At the same time, he denounced the violence and he never stopped doing that.
“But what he emphasized was the need of policymakers to change the lives of those calling out for justice.”
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