Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. became a national figure, Bayard Rustin routinely put his body — and his life — on the line as a crusader for racial justice. Rustin’s commitment to pacifism and his visionary advocacy of Gandhian nonviolence made him a pioneer in the 1940s, and captured King’s imagination in the 1950s. In 1963, with more than 20 years of organizing experience behind him, Rustin brought his unique skills to the crowning glory of his civil rights career: his work organizing the historic March on Washington, the biggest protest America had ever witnessed.
But Rustin was also seen as a political liability. He was openly gay during the fiercely homophobic era of the 40s and 50s; as a result, he was frequently shunned by the very civil rights movement he helped create. The compelling new film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin chronicles Rustin’s complex life story, a tale of race, prejudice, and idealism at the heart of 20th century America. Though he had to overcome the stereotypes associated with being an illegitimate son, an African American, a gay man and a one-time member of the Communist Party, Rustin — the ultimate outsider — eventually became a public figure and respected political insider. He not only shaped civil rights movement strategy as a longtime advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., but was known and respected by numerous U.S. Presidents and foreign leaders.
Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin premieres Monday, January 20, 10 p.m. EST on PBS. “Brother Outsider” is part of the 15th anniversary season of POV, television’s longest-running series of independent, non-fiction films.
“Bayard had nerve,” recalls Dorothy Jackson, his childhood friend and neighbor in Rustin’s hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. In the 1940s, he went to jail as a conscientious objector to World War II, ran training seminars in nonviolence and racial equality, conducted sit-ins in segregated restaurants and theaters, and in 1947 organized the first “freedom ride” through the South, for which he spent 22 days on a chain gang. Rustin was a brilliant acolyte of A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), turning the philosophy that “peace is the way” into inventive social demonstrations against the violence of injustice.
Though Rustin was politic enough not to speak publicly about his homosexuality, he was personally open about it. He had an ease with himself as a gay man that paralleled his self-confidence speaking to all audiences, white and black. Then, in 1953, when Rustin was 40, he was arrested as a “suspected sexual pervert” in a highly publicized case in California. The FOR immediately demanded his resignation, for reasons both prejudiced and political, beginning a pattern that would continue throughout his career.
A lesser man might have been silenced, but not Rustin. He became an important international leader of the nascent anti-nuclear movement, later protesting French A-bomb tests in the Algerian Sahara. When he met the 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1956 during the initial stages of the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin schooled the younger leader in the mechanics of running a nonviolent protest. However, when critics inside and outside the movement made an issue of his “personal problem,” he voluntarily left Montgomery.
Similarly, while leading the push for a strong civil rights plank at the 1960 Democratic Party convention, Rustin was attacked by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as an “immoral element” in the civil rights movement. King withdrew his support for the protest and removed Rustin from his staff. Though angered by Powell’s tactics, Rustin resigned for the greater good of the movement.
In 1963, however, Rustin was tapped by A. Philip Randolph to organize the historic March on Washington. Although Rustin remained a controversial figure, movement leaders agreed that he was “the only man who could have pulled off that March,” as former civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton — now a U.S. Congresswoman — notes in the film. The civil rights leadership stood by Rustin even though he was attacked by Senator Strom Thurmond on the floor of the United States Senate as a “homosexual, a draft-dodger, and a member of the Communist Party.” Rustin’s tremendous achievement — the largest demonstration the country had ever seen — stands as one of the great soul-stirring passages in American history. “Most Americans remember Dr. King’s magnificent ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, delivered at the end of the day, without acknowledging Rustin, the man who orchestrated the entire event,” notes filmmaker Bennett Singer.
Rustin’s later career was complicated by factors beyond his homosexuality. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he advocated a shift in strategy from protest to electoral politics — precisely at the moment when a more militant generation was taking to the streets in protest. Rustin was attacked as an “Uncle Tom” and viciously gay-baited by younger black nationalists. He did not publicly speak out against the Vietnam War, perhaps out of loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson, who had done so much to pass civil rights legislation.
Brother Outsider captures the full extent of Rustin’s complex, 60-year career as an activist. The film contains rare archival footage, including impassioned debates between Rustin and Malcolm X as well as Rustin and Stokely Carmichael. In later years, Rustin continued to champion human rights — including gay rights — in campaigns around the globe. As King aide and former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young recalls in the film, “His commitment to justice was always very strong and very consistent. It was easier when he had allies like Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph, but when they were gone, he didn’t stop.”
Brother Outsider relies on Rustin’s extensive FBI records as a form of narration, which become chilling commentaries on the government’s political surveillance programs. In a 1948 FBI report, for example, American diplomats suggested that “a prominent American Negro should tour India to counteract the unfavorable impression made by Rustin.” Whatever the circumstance — beaten, accused, shunned or celebrated — Rustin embraced the struggle with fearless dignity. Brother Outsider is an exuberant film about a passionate and tireless human being.
“Bayard Rustin was an extraordinary American who’s been slighted in the historical record because he was gay,” says filmmaker Nancy Kates. “We wanted not only to correct that record but also examine what Rustin’s amazing life teaches us about issues of equity and the fight for social justice.”