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'Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin' - Riveting Portrait of Forgotten Civil Rights Pioneer and Strategist
P.O.V. Special Airs on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 20th, 2003, 10 p.m.
A co-presentation of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC). Produced in association with KQED.
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 (check local listings) on PBS. Brother Outsider is part of the 15th anniversary season of P.O.V., 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."
About the Filmmakers:
Nancy Kates is the director of the award-winning documentary, Their Own Vietnam, a portrait of American women who served in Vietnam. She also served as associate producer of the Discovery Channel's Mystery of the Last Tzar and as producer of the PBS series, Computer Chronicles. She is a graduate of the Stanford University documentary program and resides in Berkeley, CA.
Bennett Singer, a New York-based filmmaker and book editor, has served as producer or associate producer of a number of acclaimed PBS series, including Eyes On The Prize II, With God On Our Side, and The Question of Equality. He is executive editor of TIME Magazine's education program; editor of 42 Up, the companion book to Michael Apted's famed documentary series; and co-author of The Student Body, a novel of suspense published by Random House.
Sam Pollard's documentary and feature film accomplishments span nearly 30 years. He was a producer for Blackside, Inc.'s Eyes On The Prize II, for which he won an Emmy Award, and co-executive producer for Blackside's six-part series I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African American Art. His producing credits include Spike Lee's Academy Award and Emmy Award-nominated Four Little Girls; his editing credits include the feature films Clockers, Iron Mike, Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and Girl 6.
Producers/Directors: Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer
Executive Producer: Sam Pollard
Editors: Veronica Selver and Rhonda Collins
Director of Photography: Robert Shepard
Composer: B. Quincy Griffin
Brother Outsider was supported by grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Arcus Foundation, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the Virginia Wellington Cabot Foundation, the Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund, the Colin Higgins Foundation, Horizons Foundation, the LEF Foundation, the Lesbian Equity Fund of Silicon Valley, the Levinson Family, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, the Pacific Pioneer Fund, the Poss-Kapor Family Foundation, the Rainbow Endowment, the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, the San Francisco Arts Foundation, the Ted Snowdon Foundation, the Van Loben Sels Foundation, the Working Assets Filmmaking for Change Award, and individual donors. A complete list of funders is available from PBS.
Brother Outsider: the Life of Bayard Rustin was produced in association with the Independent Television Service with funds provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Unique in American Public Television, ITVS was established by Congress, "to fund and promote programming that involves creative risks and addresses the needs of underserved audiences," while granting artistic control to independent producers. ITVS has funded more than 350 single programs and limited series for public television. Many of these ITVS programs have been featured on P.O.V. including Sundance Audience Award Winner Scout's Honor by Tom Shepard, Peabody Award Winner A Healthy Baby Girl by Judith Helfand and Emmy Award Winner Nobody's Business by Alan Berliner.
NBPC is a non-profit media service organization devoted to the production, distribution, and promotion of diverse films and videos about African Americans and the experiences of the African Diaspora. NBPC funds, commissions, acquires and awards talented makers of quality African American film and video projects. Selected programs reflect a variety of subjects and production styles. Projects unlikely to appear on the big Hollywood screen are encouraged, especially those which offer a more realistic, historically accurate, diverse, and non-stereotypical picture of the Black World. NBPC funds every phase of the production process--i.e., research and development, production, post-production and outreach. Film and video projects that are selected present Black people in primary roles, in front of and/or behind the camera. Since 1979, NBPC has provided more than five million dollars in grants to both independent and station-based producers.
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CPB, a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967, develops educational public radio, television and online services for the American people. The Corporation is the industry's largest single source of funds for national public television and radio program development and production. CPB, a grant-making organization, funds more than 1,000 public radio and television stations.
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