by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) and the Peace Resource Center are presenting a special screening of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a 2003 documentary about the pioneering Black Queer activist who issued the original call for the 1963 March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The showing will take place Tuesday, December 13, 6:30 p.m. at the Peace Resource Center, 3850 Westgate Place in City Heights.
Rustin — whose name, incidentally, was pronounced “BYE-ard,” not “BAY-ard” — was a pacifist in the 1940’s who went to prison rather than serve in the U.S. military during World War II. He was also a Black civil-rights activist and a Gay man who lived long enough to come out as such and even make a statement shortly before the end of his life in 1987 that whereas in the 1960’s Blacks had been the cutting edge of the civil rights movement, by the 1980’s it was Queers who had taken that role. Rustin was a counselor to Dr. Martin Luther King, though the two men broke not only over Rustin’s sexual orientation and King’s fear that it would taint the movement but also because they took opposite positions on the war in Viet Nam.
Though a woman who knew Rustin attended a screening of the film at the San Diego Public Library in 2003 and said she had marched with him in 1961 in New York City on the first-ever protest in the U.S. against the Viet Nam war, the man who had gone to prison rather than fight in World War II refused to oppose the Viet Nam war in the late 1960’s. The film explains Rustin’s tacit support of the war as partly due to his friendship with President Lyndon Johnson and partly because he believed that a stand on the war would only detract from the civil rights issue — quite the opposite of Martin Luther King’s position, which was that opposing the war was just as much a part of his moral witness as opposing the segregation and oppression of his own people, and was therefore an issue on which he could not compromise.
Thanks largely due to his otherwise inexplicable refusal to come out against the war in Viet Nam, in the late 1960’s Rustin became the living symbol of Black accommodationism and the man the militant “Black Power” activists most loved to hate. The film included clips from two filmed debates Rustin had with Black Power leaders, one with Malcolm X in 1962 and one with Stokely Carmichael in 1967. In the latter, Rustin criticized the Black Power movement for calling on Blacks to carry guns, arguing that it was insane for people to arm themselves with rifles and knives and think that was going to defend them against a government armed with bazookas and tanks. Carmichael in turn attacked Rustin for being willing to work within the Democratic Party, arguing that America’s two major parties were both “evil” and Blacks needed to stop making “lesser of two evils” choices at the ballot box. It’s a debate as old as two-party politics in America; it goes at least as far back as the formation of the Free Soil Party in the 1840’s by abolitionists who weren’t willing, as people like Abraham Lincoln were, to align with the Whig Party as the lesser of two evils on slavery.
A peculiar aspect of Rustin’s career was his arrest in 1953 in Pasadena for having sex with two other men in a parked car — which was used against him for the rest of his life (the film includes a 1963 clip of racist Senator Strom Thurmond using it to denounce Rustin as a “pervert”) and which no doubt contributed to his disinclination to stand in the limelight and his withdrawals from the King circle and other positions where he thought the presence of a convicted sex criminal would detract from the civil rights issue. The film also covers his career as a singer (he sang backup vocals on Josh White’s 1940 album Chain Gang) and his late-in-life relationship with a white man one-third his age.
For more information on the screening, please call the Peace Resource Center at (619) 263-9301 or visit the S.A.M.E. Web site at www.samealliance.com