By Angela Thomas
Fifty years after he helped organize the world-changing National March on Washington, LGBT activist Bayard Rustin will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian award in the United States.
Born on March 17, 1912, Bayard was raised in West Chester, Pa., in a family that was heavily involved in activism. Bayard’s maternal grandmother, Julia Rustin, was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Rustin attended Wilberforce University in Ohio and later Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheyney University) before he moved to New York City in 1937 to attend the City College of New York.
Rustin began his work with civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an organizer and strategist in the 1950s. He was responsible for organizing the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., and was a key organizer — relegated to behind the scenes largely because of his sexual orientation — for King’s seminal march.
Rustin died in New York City Aug. 24 1987, leaving his partner of 10 years, Walter Naegle, behind to continue his legacy.
Naegle, who will accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom award on Rustin’s behalf, said he was standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change in April of 1977 when he noticed a man who immediately caught his eye.
“We began to talk to each other. I noticed that he was very tall, well dressed and a handsome older gentleman,” he said. “At the moment I met him, I didn’t know who he was — but I knew who Bayard Rustin was.”
Rustin, who was open about his sexual orientation throughout his career, was 65 when he met Naegle, at that time 27.
Naegle said his sexuality was still emerging when he met Rustin, noting his coming-out experience was relatively easy compared to others of that time.
“It was a gradual thing. I didn’t make a grand announcement but people in my family were certainly aware I wasn’t dating women in high school and, in fact, I wasn’t dating anyone really back then,” Naegle said. “I took, what I considered, my first real boyfriend home in the early 1970s. My parents didn’t make a big deal out of it.”
Once he and Rustin started their relationship, Naegle said they were fortunately free of some of the prejudice interracial gay couples in other areas of the country experienced.
“We lived in New York City, which is not the same as small-town America. The only time we encountered any curiosity was when we where in South Africa together on a research project, but we weren’t walking around holding hands or showing public affection,” he said. “There were people in New York that knew we were a couple but the average person wouldn’t make that assumption. They were curious about the age difference.”
Rustin’s activist career frequently made him the target of public attention and arrests. He was arrested for “sex perversion” in 1953 and jailed for 60 days and was also jailed from 1944-46 after he refused to serve in World War II, an illustration of his non-violent Quaker faith.
Naegle said that although Rustin was active in civil rights when the pair met, his career did not put him in such a spotlight at that time.
“By the time I met him, it was past the peak years of the civil-rights period so I wouldn’t say I had a lot of fears,” he said. “I didn’t worry about him being attacked. He traveled a lot and went abroad a lot and there were times where I was concerned about his general health, but I didn’t have any big fears.”
Same-sex marriage was rarely a topic on the political radar in the 1970s and ’80s, so in order to protect their relationship legally, Rustin adopted Naegle before his death.
While 13 states and Washington D.C. now allow same-sex couples to marry, Naegle said the couple never dreamed of such a day.
“When the efforts first started being made for marriage equality, I would say I was skeptical about it and the likelihood of it happening but when I sat down and thought of the logic of it all, a lot of it was about educating people who weren’t aware of the vast number of laws and protections that people have when they are legally married. Unless it is recognized by the state, you are not entitled to all those protections and laws.”
Naegle founded the Bayard Rustin Fund in 1997 to continue to educate others on peace, nonviolence, racial justice, LGBT equality and activism. In 2003, the fund released, “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” a documentary on Rustin’s life and activism.
And in 2006, Bayard Rustin High School was founded in West Chester.
Naegle said educating the younger generation on Rustin’s legacy has been a rewarding experience.
“A lot of younger people have no idea of who he was or know too much about the civil-rights movement,” he said. “People recognized Dr. King’s name. The important thing was Bayard was a part of a movement: It was not about one person, it was a whole team of people.”
On Aug. 8, President Obama announced that Rustin would be among a handful of individuals to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.
Naegle said he was delighted to hear the news, and said it held special significance since it coincided with the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington — and helped affirm and recognize Rustin’s contributions.
“I was grateful and I think that it puts him in a position as a recognized individual who promoted democracy and equality in the country,” he said. “All the other leaders of the March of Washington received a Medal of Freedom. Although he wasn’t officially one of the leaders, he still did a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff.”
In addition to honoring the organizers of the march, the award can bring attention to the event itself and its groundbreaking message, Naegle added.
“I think there have been a lot of marches since then because it was the first of its kind; a great number of people came to it, it was an interracial effort and had an agenda to get certain laws passed,” he said. “It has taken on a status of its own. It was a very important and historical day in the country.”
The visibility attained by the march is something that the LGBT community should strive for today, he noted.
“I think there is work that needs to be done on the grassroots level,” Naegle said. “People need to start coming out to families and educating people. Churches are an awesome place to start because some harbor a lot of anti-LGBT feelings. I think that the key to overcome prejudice is through education and one of the ways you educate people is by being yourself, being open and letting them see there is all kinds of LGBT people out there.”
Naegle said Rustin wanted to a build a society that was just and equal and said the issues that leaders faced in 1963 — such as job security and personal freedom — are still the same issues we fight today.
“Fifty years later, we have more people in poverty and the income gap is widening. We need to work on the issue of poverty. He focused a lot on eliminating poverty in the country, providing better schools, healthcare and all those issues. We need to continue working towards building that kind of society and that would fulfill his legacy.”
For more information on the Bayard Rustin Fund, visit http://rustin.org.