From Eric Marcus: Bayard Rustin was a key behind-the-scenes leader of the Black civil rights movement—a proponent of nonviolent protest, a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the principal organizer of the landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And he was gay and open about it, which had everything to do with why he remained in the background and is little known today in comparison to other leaders of the civil rights movement.
My earliest memory of anything having to do with the civil rights movement is indelible, because it’s one of the rare memories I have of my father, who died in 1970. He was lying on the sofa in the living room of our small apartment watching Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral on television following King’s assassination in April 1968. I was nine years old. While I have only the fuzziest memory of the black and white images on the TV screen, I will never forget the tears streaming down my father’s face. It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry.
My real introduction to the civil rights movement came in junior high school. My choir teacher, who was African American, led a concert every year in honor of Dr. King on King’s birthday and included in our rehearsals discussions about the history of the movement.
Bayard Rustin’s name never came up during those years and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned of Bayard Rustin’s critical role in the movement and the fact that he was gay. Rustin died a year before I started work on my oral history book, so I never had the chance to interview him.
As we began planning for the fourth season of the Making Gay History podcast, MGH’s executive producer, Sara Burningham, suggested we do an episode featuring Bayard Rustin. Rustin’s story, she explained, would give us the opportunity to explore a civil rights movement that so many of the people I’d interviewed for my book cited as a source of inspiration for their gay rights work—whether they participated directly in that movement, drew inspiration from it, or simply watched from a distance. And hearing Rustin’s story would provide insight into the crushing oppression and very real danger gay people faced during the pre-Stonewall era, especially someone who chose to be open about his sexuality while pursuing social justice work that put him in the public eye.
The challenge we faced in telling Rustin’s story in a Making Gay History episode was the apparent absence of any recordings where he talked about his experiences as a gay man. But thanks to the dogged researching efforts of Sara Burningham and the generosity of Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle, who recorded and saved the rare interviews Rustin gave on the subject of his sexuality, we’re able to bring this aspect of Rustin’s experience to life through his own voice.
After you’ve listened to this episode, look through the resources that follow below, watch the two documentaries we recommend, be prepared to be outraged by the prejudice Bayard Rustin endured, and be inspired by his persistence in the fight for equality and social justice.
Read Bayard Rustin’s 1987 New York Times obituary here. It identifies his partner Walter Naegle as his “administrative assistant and adopted son.” For a biography of Rustin, check out John d’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin here. For young readers, there’s the biography Troublemaker for Justice: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man behind the March on Washington, written by Jacqueline Houtman, Michael G. Long, and Walter Naegle; you can find it here.
Listen to this episode of the State of the Re:Union podcast to learn about Rustin’s indelible contributions to the civil rights movement. And find out about PBS’s award-winning POV documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin here. In 2013 Democracy Now! aired an episode devoted to Rustin. The show includes Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle, Rustin’s biographer John d’Emilio, and former chairman of the NAACP Julian Bond. Watch part 1 and part 2.
Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle was featured in a short film by Matt Wolf titled “Bayard and Me.” You can watch it here.
In her interview with Rustin, Peg Byron inquires about Rustin’s recent D.C. visit with Black and White Men Together. Learn more about the group here.
Watch President Obama honor Bayard Rustin at the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony. Watch Walter Naegle accept the medal here. Gay astronaut Sally Ride was honored alongside Rustin that same year; find out more about Ride here.
Eric Marcus’s interview with Walter Naegle was conducted at the home he shared with Rustin, which in 2016 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can see the building on the website of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project here. The webpage has some great photos of Rustin, including one in his apartment with his extensive cane collection.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History!
In the 30 years since I started my work collecting oral histories of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, there’s one question I’m asked more than any other: Is there anyone you didn’t interview who you wish you’d talked to? There are a lot of people I wish I could have interviewed, but Bayard Rustin is near the top of that list. For a couple of reasons.
For many of the early gay rights activists I spoke with, their activism began with or was inspired by or influenced by the Black civil rights movement. And Bayard, who was gay and open about it, was one of the principal architects of that movement, having mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organized the landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And he did so much more.
But Bayard died a year before I began my work, so I couldn’t ask him how he navigated what I can only imagine was treacherous terrain for a Black gay man during those years, couldn’t ask him what impact his homosexuality had on his role in the Black civil rights movement, and I couldn’t ask what he thought about the fight for LGBTQ civil rights.
I never got the chance to record Bayard talking about all those things… But Walter Naegle did. Walter is Bayard’s surviving partner—as a matter of fact, Bayard had adopted Walter in 1982. Before marriage equality, adoption was one of the few ways for same-sex couples to protect each other’s legal rights.
During the 10 years they were together before Bayard’s death, Walter made backup recordings of many of the interviews Bayard gave. Including the never-before-heard interview we’re going to share with you in this episode.
Walter Naegle lives just a 10-minute walk north of where I live in Chelsea in New York City, in the same apartment he once shared with Bayard.
Eric Marcus: It’s one of those miserable, rainy fall days but the leaves are so beautiful.
EM Narration: Today, there’s a plaque honoring Bayard Rustin in the shadow of the building where he once lived.
EM: That’s 340 West 28th Street, which is where we are. And he lived here from 1962 to 1987. And the quote beneath the image, his image and this bronze plaque, which is huge, says, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Bayard Rustin.”
EM Narration: The red-brick high-rise is part of a huge cooperative development that was sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in the early 1960s.
Walter Naegle: Hello?
[Buzzer sound, followed by elevator door ding.]
EM Narration: It remains a thriving middle-class community today.
WN: Hi, I’m Walter.
EM: Hi Walter. Eric Marcus.
WN: Hi Sara, good to see you.
EM Narration: Walter is a still boyish-looking 68-year-old. He’s about my height—in other words, on the short side. His soft, open face is framed by thinning silver hair, combed back from his high forehead. Walter’s blue-green eyes sparkle.
In the more than 30 years since Bayard died, Walter has lived here, in this big-windowed apartment overlooking the cityscape. He’s in charge of Bayard’s estate, and has worked hard to shed light on his late partner’s legacy.
Bayard is everywhere in the apartment, from his collection of walking sticks set in stands by the front door to the eclectic mix of objets featuring African art and Christian religious iconography. The pietà looking down on us as we talk makes me a little nervous.
In the final years of Bayard’s life, in addition to being his life partner, and adopted son, Walter worked as Bayard’s assistant.
WN: I’m an early bird, Bayard was kind of a night owl. So I would say, you know, I was usually the first one up. I would get up, you know, 6:30, 7:00 in the morning, get ready, go over to the office, kind of open things up. Bayard’s office was at 21st Street and Park Avenue South, on the sixth floor of that building. Bayard would show up around maybe 10:00, 10:30, 11:00 depending on his own schedule for the day.
EM Narration: Thanks to the meticulous care Walter has taken in preserving and sharing Bayard’s legacy, we’re able to bring you this interview, originally recorded on Wednesday, February 5, 1986, between Bayard and Peg Byron, who was writing for the DC-based gay newspaper the Washington Blade.
So here’s the scene… Well, I wasn’t there. Walter was, so here’s how he remembers it.
WN: Bayard had a fairly large office of his own wherein actually some of the overflow of his collection resided. He had a lot of African art in the office. There was a piano in the office, there were… He had a wonderful desk.
And he was seated behind the desk and Peg was kind of up on the opposite side facing him, and I just placed the tape recorder on the desk and I was sort of moving in and out because, you know, I was supposed to be working, too, not just sitting there listening. So I would kind of keep my eye on things and, you know, answer the phone and do that kind of thing, but it was very informal, very relaxed.
Peg Byron: I’m gonna tape this, too, if you don’t mind.
Bayard Rustin: No, that’s quite alright. Walter’s doing some research on me, and therefore he tapes whenever anybody else does. Not to check on anybody…
PB: Yeah… Is that me?
BR: I think that’s this one. Walter? If this shows red, does that mean his has stopped?
PB: No, his is still going.
PB: Has there ever been some project you were involved with where, not that being gay was necessarily an issue, but did you ever feel frustration about…
BR: Oh, certainly. I don’t know if you know, but I was an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King’s for a number of years. And that actually I’m the person who drew up the plans for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him. And after eight years that committee came to the decision it would be dangerous.
PB: Wait, the committee met for eight years?
BR: No, he set… After I had worked for him for eight years, the… J. Edgar Hoover began to circulate all kinds of stories about Martin Luther King, one of which was that he was a friend of mine, hinting that somehow or other there might be some homosexual relationship going on between us. This frightened a number of the people in Martin Luther King’s movement, and they set up a committee to discover what they should do about it. And that committee asked me to leave.
PB: When was that?
BR: That was around 1962. And, naturally, I took the position that if people feel that I am a danger to some important movement, I would leave. But the thing which distressed me was that if… if Martin had taken the strong stand then that he took a year later, in ’63, vis-à-vis Strom Thurmond, he could have overcome it and kept me. But I understand his doing it, and I hold no grief with him about having done it. I just wish that he had shown the strength in ’62 that he showed when he backed me completely in ’63. But he was a year older, and had another year’s experience.
If I’ve learned anything it is that people, by helping others who are also in trouble, grow in strength to help themselves—that a new psychological and spiritual element is brought to bear.
Now this became very clear to me in 1963, when I was organizing the March on Washington. And Strom Thurmond stood up in the Senate of the United States and for three-quarters of an hour, attacked me as a draft dodger, which was untrue, because I was a conscientious objector and well known as being a Quaker opposed to all violence. He attacked me as a former member of the Young Communist League, which was true. I had been. He attacked me as a homosexual. Which of course I was.
PB: You were the original commie-pinko-fag of the day, I suppose.
BR: Yeah, exactly. Now, there were 10 leaders of that march. One of the most important Jews, the most important Catholic, the most important Protestant, Walter Reuther representing the trade union movement, and six Black civil rights leaders. When he attacked me, I had absolutely no basic apprehension and for a very good reason, because I had spent a great deal of my life defending prejudice against Catholics, against trade unions, against Jews, against Blacks, against Protestants, and therefore I inwardly knew that those leaders, knowing of my history, had to come to my defense. And they did. And the important thing was that they voted that only one person should speak, and that was the founder of the march, Mr. A. Philip Randolph.
PB: One person should speak?
BR: To the press, after this attack. And they agreed that the only thing they would say were two things. One, we have absolute faith in Mr. Rustin’s character, and absolute faith in his ability to make this march an historic event.
PB: And your role in the march, were you the coordinator of the march?
BR: I was the coordinator. Now, I point that out because that was a great experience and I think the opposite, that I could have been in great trouble. And I think that, had I not spent a great deal of my life defending all of those groups, there would have been less of a determined effort to defend me.
This is from the New York Times of August 16, 1963, written by one of the best writers of the Times, which says, “Negro Rally Aide Rebuts Senator.” So, I, you don’t have to read that now, but I thought you might find something in that of interest.
PB: Thanks. Oh, that’s great. Thank you.
BR: In other words…
PB: “Negro,” so it starts with so much as the New York Times homosexual…
BR: Well, in those days…
PB: In those days that was the accepted…
BR: Everybody was a Negro. Yeah.
PB: Parlance, I know.
PB: With all the work you were doing in human rights at the time, you must have been feeling some sense like you had this coming? I mean, you had a right to, you know, have your gayness as well as your Blackness, and, you know, a Quaker believes defending…
BR: One of the reasons that I decided that I should no longer remain in the closet came from an experience I had as a Black. One day, in 19…, way back as far as 1947, I walked into a bus in the South, all prepared to do what I had always done in the South. Take a seat in the rear.
As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the red necktie I was wearing and pulled it. Whereupon its mother said, “Don’t touch a nigger.” Something happened, and I said to myself, If I go and sit quietly in the back of that bus now, that child who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many Blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, “They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.” That’s what people in the South would say.
So I said, I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, but I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that Blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.
Now, it occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting…
PB: Sitting in the back, yeah…
BR: … the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me. And that in the long run the only way I could be a free whole person was to face the shit.
But from my own experience I know how long it can take till you free yourself. Thirty-four years is a long time to free yourself.
PB: So when did you first come out as gay, to yourself?
BR: I recognized that I was gay when I was in high school.
PB: Where was that?
BR: That was in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
PB: West Chester High?
BR: Yeah. But I was fortunate and was very successful at hiding it, because I was on the championship football team. I was on the championship track team. I won the all-state high school championship for tennis. I was so popular and boys in the school liked me so that they automatically made me the manager of the basketball team—I couldn’t play basketball at all—in order that I would get four letters, because the manager got four letters. So, at that point, it was all extremely romantic and far removed from any activity. But I knew then that my affection was far more for men than women.
I told you that I won all those honors in sports.
PB: Yeah, you were the all-around…
BR: But when the banquet came for the football team, it was held at the YMCA, in which I was not allowed to go swim. So my grandmother urged me in protest not to go to the banquet, and I’m so glad she did. Because I learned from that that you may have worked hard as you could for Dr. King, but there also may be a time when things are not just gonna go the way you want them to, or that if you had strength enough to fight them and not go to the banquet where all your friends were, then you can deal with Strom Thurmond. I learned some things in that early period.
When I look back upon it I also understood that my experience there had been a very liberating one. And because of what I had to put up with there, I also was preparing myself with putting up with what I had to do as a gay person.
PB: Were you from a big family?
BR: Well, I came from an immediate very small family, because I was born illegitimately to my mother when she was 16 and my father was 17. Now that was my immediate family. But because of their ages and their inability to deal with a baby, my grandmother and grandfather reared me and they had eight children. So I picture myself as coming from an enormous family, and in fact I must have been nine or 10 before I realized my mother was not my sister. And that’s how totally accepted I was.
PB: Do your parents, or your family, know that you’re gay?
BR: My grandmother knew it but she never spoke of it. I can tell you how I personally knew she knew it. I was associating with a young, rather handsome fellow, and she called me one day and she said…
PB: In high school?
BR: No, this was after I had come out in college. She called me one day and she says, “Bayard, I think you have to be very careful associating with …” And she called his name. And I said, “Why, mama?” She says, “Because you are the type of person who can easily get into trouble, and particularly where young men are concerned, always associate with people who have as much to lose as you have.” And she said, “He has absolutely nothing to lose.” Now somehow or other I knew from that day on she knew. Then later she’d always say to me…
PB: It sounds like your mother is saying, “He is not good enough for you, dear.”
BR: I think that’s what she meant but not in those terms. I think she meant that it’s very dangerous to get involved because you are gay with people who don’t have as much to hide as you have. I think that’s what she was saying. Because she was such a libertarian and I can’t imagine her meaning the other thing although she may have meant both, who knows?
At any rate, later when I went back to college, she would always say to me, “Why don’t you bring one of your young friends from college home with you? We would love to have some of your young friends.” And I would say, “Oh fine.” And she would say, “Oh, that young man that you’ve been writing to me about from Cleveland sounds very interesting, why don’t you bring him?” I think she was saving me from asking to bring him.
PB: That’s very sweet.
BR: Oh, she was a marvelous person, she really was.
PB: How did you like your trip to Washington, by the way? You spoke to the Black and White Men Together group?
BR: I enjoyed it very much. I thought it was a very good group. And I suppose when you get good discussion after a talk, you always feel it’s important. Because that’s what one goes for, to try to stimulate people’s thinking.
My general thesis was that the human condition is of a single pattern. And that none of us is free and none of us can practice democracy fully so long as any other segment of the community or any country is not democratic. And that therefore it is very important that as gay people sought their rights, that they understand the interconnection and that therefore their working for the rights of all other groups was in their own selfish, as well as in their own humanitarian, interests.
I think one of the problems is this, that people who have been mistreated almost always tend to adopt the worst element of their enemy, and mistreat other people.
There is a great deal of prejudice amongst gay whites to Blacks and Hispanics. This is understandable largely because everybody tends to avoid the double jeopardy. “I’ve got enough on me as a white queer, why do I have to have Black friends who pull down a whole lot of more crap on me?” I understand this and I’m sympathetic to it, but as I go around talking, I point out to people until they do get over that, they are still playing games with themselves. And it’s bad enough that the straight world out there should try to cripple you, it is even worse at the point you cooperate with their crippling.
One thing you might be interested in, in New York City… Let me get Walter because he has more details on this than I have.
PB: He’s really your right arm, isn’t he?
BR: Walter, without him I’m hopeless. Walter, can you come here a minute?
You look a bit harassed. Are you harassed?
WN: Been one of those days.
BR: Walter and I are doing something…
EM Narration: The formal interview trails off. Bayard begins talking about the cookies that he and Walter are baking—in truth, Walter was baking—for a potluck fundraiser for children’s arts. It seems that life with a civil rights legend could be totally ordinary, too.
Back to the present, and noisy Chelsea in the high-rise apartment with Walter—and Bayard’s walking sticks, religious iconography, statues, paintings, ceramics, and photographs. It’s a lifetime’s collection that chafes against Walter’s innate preference for minimalism.
WN: Believe me, this is nothing compared to what was in here.
WN: Oh, yeah, you could barely turn around without fear of knocking something over and breaking it. So yeah…
EM: And it spans… I mean, just looking at a few things, it’s everything from Western art to African art to… This looks like it’s from either China or from Tibet.
WN: The roof tile?
EM: Is that a roof tile? Wow.
WN: Yeah, it was a Chinese roof tile. Well, I, he loved all of these things, I can tell you that…
EM: And you’ve kept them.
WN: I’ve kept quite a few of them. I’ve sold things. I’ve donated things. I still have things in storage. I’ve tried to hang on to the things that I think meant the most to him or were representative of his philosophy and his ideas. They’re still very much a part of who he was to me. So I want to hang on to them.
EM Narration: In 2013, 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Barack Obama awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bayard was one of 16 honorees receiving the nation’s highest civilian award that year, including Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Steinem, and Loretta Lynn. And Walter joined them at the White House to accept the medal on Bayard’s behalf.
WN: It was not a place where I ever imagined that I would be myself. In fact, when I was young I probably would have objected to going, but, you know, this wasn’t about me. This was about Bayard. Before we went in for the ceremony, there was kind of like this receiving, sort of like a receiving line, and Bill Clinton was getting an award that day, too. So he was couple of… There were two presidents there. He was a couple of spaces away from me. And President Obama and Mrs. Obama came through and, you know, they talked to me and they said, you know, Bayard was somebody who really influenced, influenced them, their politics, their ideas, their activism. And so they were happy that he was… to be the ones that were giving this award.
At the beginning of the ceremony he made remarks about all of the recipients, and he said things about Bayard of course, and he ended—I’m paraphrasing here although I should know it by now because I’ve heard it so many times—he ended by saying something like, you know… He ended by saying something like, “No medal can undo that or replace that,” and he was talking about the treatment that Bayard had received.
President Obama: For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.
WN: For the first time that day, the audience burst into applause. It was like, oh goodness. Yeah, I was sitting there next to Sally Ride’s partner and we were the first two LGBT partners to be able to accept the award on their late partners’ behalf.
EM: You and I have both lived through dramatic changes in how people look at us. And to think that the President of the United States was acknowledging who we are and what we mean to our loved ones, our partners, whether they’re here or not, feels monumental. And you were there.
WN: Yeah, it did. I mean, it felt very, it felt like a moment, a moment of change, a moment of recognition and affirmation.
EM Narration: Many thanks to everyone who makes Making Gay History possible: executive producer Sara Burningham, producer Josh Gwynn, production coordinator Inge De Taeye, audio engineer Pran Bandi, social media producer Denio Lourenco, photo editor Michael Green, and special thanks to Jenna Weiss-Berman. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Myers.
Thank you also to the Metropolitan New York Library Council for their assistance digitizing Walter Naegle’s original tapes. And thank you to Peg Byron for asking the questions in the interview you’ve just heard. Special thanks to Walter Naegle, who so generously welcomed us into his home and shared with us both his priceless cassette tapes and his memories.
The Making Gay History podcast is a co-production of Pineapple Street Media, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
Season four of this podcast has been made possible with funding from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Calamus Foundation, and our listeners—like Paul Karpinski. Thanks, Paul!
Stay in touch with Making Gay History by signing up for our newsletter at makinggayhistory.com. Our website is also where you’ll find previous episodes, archival photos, full transcripts, and additional information on each of the people and stories we feature.
So long! Until next time!