Friday, August 23, 2013

THE BUTLER and Bayard Rustin

I saw his name on a building.  For twenty years in New York City, I lived near the Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities located on West 18th Street.  I often wondered if the students knew that Mr. Rustin was one of the greatest yet most overlooked pioneers in America's Civil Rights movement.  Being that West 18th is in NYC's Chelsea section, a neighborhood that become full of gay residents, I wondered if minority gay students knew that Rustin was a black and openly gay man. Bayard Rustin was one tough, controversial Quaker from Pennsylvania.  He had to be tough.  He was a  minority within a group of minorities.  He helped bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Have you seen Lee Daniels' The Butler?  In it, you see known actors portray President Ronald and Nancy Reagan, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Richard Nixon, President John F. Kennedy and a cast member from HBO's True Blood portrays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  There's a key section in the film in which young black and white Freedom Riders in the 1960s are taught the principles of non-violent civil disobedience in combating racial hate.  They're taught the strength and methods of the Mahatma Gandhi.  The forceful man wearing glasses and teaching the lessons is not called "Bayard Rustin" in the movie.  He's "the pastor."  These principles are, indeed, what Rustin brought to Martin Luther King and to the movement.  Rustin was Dr. King's top and most trusted advisor.  He was the architect of the now-historic 1963 March on Washington.

When interviewed by Larry King recently on Larry King Now, the filmmaker said that "black men can't come out."  Daniels is in a same-sex relationship.  He raised the accurate point that we black men and Latino men who are not straight are pushed in secrecy because of intolerance from church, parents, other family and friends.  If I could interview the Oscar-nominated director -- and I'd love to -- I'd ask him about the pastor character in his new movie and why he wasn't named Bayard Rustin.  Rustin was a college-educated, articulate, talented man who'd traveled the world.  Blessed with a good tenor voice, he sang in a Broadway production with Paul Robeson.  He also recorded.

Because of being gay, he was arrested by Pasadena, California cops in 1953.  He was rejected by members of his same race whose cause he championed.  Reportedly, one such person was Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, a known playboy.  A few weeks before the March on Washington, segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond publicly denounced Rustin as a "Communist, draft dodger and homosexual."  Sen. Thurmond implied to the FBI that Rustin and Dr. King were lovers.  They were not.  Bayard Rustin was an outsider in a group of outsiders.  His contributions to Dr. King were great.  You see him standing behind Dr. King during the iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

To learn more about Bayard Rustin, find the documentary aptly titled Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.  Here's a trailer:

Rustin continued to fight for racial equality, economic justice and gay rights.  He opposed the Vietnam War and helped the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union.  During his life, he regularly bounced back from bouts of unemployment and low-income jobs due to his race and sexual orientation.  He died at age 75 in 1987.

Let's face it.  Oscar loves biopics.  Think of of the stars who have taken home some Hollywood gold for playing late, famous -- or infamous -- newsmakers.  Actors who played King George IV, writers Virginia Woolf and Truman Capote, singers Edith Piaf and Ray Charles, actors Katharine Hepburn and Bela Lugosi, San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin all won Oscars.

It is definitely time for a big screen biopic on this important black man whose contributions to modern American history were long kept in the shadows.  Let's bring them to light.

President Obama will commemorate this month's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by conferring a Presidential Medal of Freedom on the late humanitarian.

"To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true." ~Bayard Rustin


  1. Thank you for answering a question I had while I was watching the film. I really enjoyed that scene.

  2. Thank you, Marko, for reading my blog piece. I sincerely appreciate the attention and the comment.

  3. And co-starring Bobby Rivers as......
    Good read as usual Bobby.


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