Although Bayard Rustin was one of the chief architects and organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the civil rights strategist existed for years mostly on the margins of history.
But earlier this month, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would be awarding Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's the nation's highest civilian honor and places Bayard (pronounced BUY-ard) Rustin in the company of such civil rights leaders as Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Last week, Bennett Singer, the producer and director of the 2003 documentary "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin," participated in a panel discussion of the film at the Chicago Urban League during an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march.
Singer, 49, is a Highland Park native who now lives in New York. I talked to him about why he and co-director Nancy Kates took on the project. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
Q: What attracted you to Bayard Rustin as a subject?
A: After college, I had the utterly good fortune to be an intern on the documentary "Eyes on the Prize." I was researching and fact-checking the March on Washington when I discovered Bayard Rustin. I felt in some ways I had discovered a character out of a novel, when you think of his global reach and the breadth of his achievements despite being, as one writer put it, "expunged from history." So we set out to tell his story.
Q: Part of his story was that he was openly gay during the 1940s and '50s.
A: It was a fiercely and virulently homophobic period. We can talk about exactly how open he was, but person after person we talked to said he wasn't afraid to say he was gay. There was no gay rights movement in the 1940s and '50s. There was no gay community. It was a much more difficult time.
Q: Why didn't he hide his homosexuality?
A: My sense is that a lot of it goes back to his Quaker upbringing and the notion that telling the truth and being open and honest were essential to living with integrity.
Q: But he didn't fight for gay rights early on, even though he did later.
A: That's true. One person said he was a one-man crusade for gay liberation, and I think the people he interacted with recognized his openness.
Q: Rustin was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Describe the group and his role in it.
A: It was a Christian pacifist group and its mission was to educate and spread the word about the immorality of violence and war and militarism. Rustin refused to register for the draft and was sentenced to three years in prison as a conscientious objector. He was an organizer for the fellowship and attached to the notion that nonviolence was the most effective way to bring about social change.
Q: Rustin was a brilliant organizer. In 1947 he helped organize a freedom ride and he later helped elevate King's role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and advised him on the Gandhian techniques of nonviolence. Talk a bit about that.
A: Rustin had the ability to see the big picture in terms of the philosophical demands of social movements but also the intricate details of executing and implementing protests. He met a 25-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., and during the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King had armed guards outside his house and guns inside. Rustin helped persuade King that as a leader of a nonviolent movement, he needed to disassociate himself from guns.
Allies of the March on Washington were fearful that the march couldn't take place without violence and bloodshed. But Rustin was determined to keep things nonviolent and he did.
Q: The success of the march was one of the reasons he and A. Philip Randolph landed on the cover of Life Magazine. But before that, in 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, Calif., for having sex in the back of a car with two guys. That arrest would come back to haunt him.
A: He was arrested on a morals charge and sentenced to 60 days in jail. He was also forced to resign from his work for the fellowship. That was an incredibly traumatic and difficult time for him, and yet it liberated him. He didn't have a choice to hide after that — but it also made him an easy target later on.
A few weeks before the March on Washington, Sen. Strom Thurmond stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate and denounced Rustin on multiple grounds, accusing him of being a draft-dodger, Communist and sexual pervert. Thurmond was trying to derail the march, but it didn't happen.
Q: After the assassination of King and the latter part of the 1960s, there was the black power split within the civil rights movement. How did this affect Rustin?
A: Some younger activists disagreed with the notion that nonviolence was the way to go and Rustin's relevance was questioned. So he changed his focus to international human rights work. President Carter appointed him to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Rustin spent time in South Africa working to dismantle apartheid. My sense is that in 1977, after Rustin met Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years, Walter really encouraged Rustin to speak out more publicly on gay rights and the connection between gay rights and civil rights.
Q: How do students react to the film?
A: We've taken the film to hundreds of middle and high schools. Students admire Rustin's bravery and courage. They also see him as an accessible role model, maybe more accessible than other historical figures, given his complexity and human side.
Q: How did Rustin affect your life?
A: As a gay man, I was drawn to his story because I saw him as a hero. I was moved by his courage like many of the students who see the film. It's fair to say anyone who has experienced being an outsider in any context can relate to Rustin's story.
You can view "Brother Outsider" on WTTW Create/World on Wednesday at 11 p.m., or in a streaming format via World Channel at chicagotribune.com/rustin on Wednesday and Thursday.