The White House has announced it will posthumously award the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the trailblazing civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Obama will honor Rustin and 15 others, including President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and baseball great Ernie Banks, at the White House later this year. Rustin was a key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and introduced him to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence. Rustin helped King start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Six years later, he was the chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, rallying hundreds of thousands of people for economic justice, full employment, voting rights and equal opportunity. "Rustin was one of the most important social justice activists in the U.S. in the 20th century," says John D’Emilio, author of "Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin." "Rustin pioneered the use of Gandhian nonviolence as a way of calling attention to segregation and other forms of racism in the United States." We also speak to former NAACP chair Julian Bond and Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle. See Part 2 of this interview.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The White House has announced it will posthumously award the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the trailblazing civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Obama will honor Rustin and 16 others, including President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and baseball great Ernie Banks, at the White House later this year.
In his own day, Bayard Rustin was a minority within a minority who tirelessly agitated for change, spending nights in jail opposing U.S. policy at home and abroad. He was an African American fighting against segregation, a gay man fighting against homophobia, and a pacifist fighting against endless warfare. Rustin was a key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King and introduced him to Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence. He helped Dr. King start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Six years later, Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, rallying hundreds of thousands of people for economic justice, full employment, voting rights and equal opportunity.
BAYARD RUSTIN: We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation—no compromise, no filibuster—and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bayard Rustin speaking 50 years ago this month, August 28, at the March on Washington 1963. In later years, Bayard Rustin spoke publicly about the importance of equal rights for gay men and lesbians, suggesting it was the new frontier of the civil rights movement. On August 24, 1987, Bayard Rustin died of a perforated appendix. He was survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years.
For more, we’re joined now by three guests, including Walter Naegle here in our studios at Democracy Now! He was Bayard Rustin’s partner, now archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate.
In Chicago, Illinois, we’re joined by John D’Emilio, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the author of the award-winning biography of Bayard Rustin called Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, also recently published a new edition of the book Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America.
And via Democracy Now! video stream we’re joined by Julian Bond, leading civil rights activist, former chair of the board of the NAACP. Julian Bond helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, state legislator in Georgia for over two decades, wrote the foreword to the book I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s first go to Florida to Julian Bond. When you heard that President Obama would be awarding Bayard Rustin the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, your thoughts, having known Bayard for many years?
JULIAN BOND: Well, I was just—I was just overcome. It just seemed like something that was long overdue. I was happy to hear it, surprised to hear it, and glad to hear it.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to our guest in Chicago right now, John D’Emilio, who wrote the book about Bayard Rustin. Especially for young people, and even, you know, for a general audience, Bayard Rustin’s name is not a household name, yet he was the major organizer, together with his mentor, A. Philip Randolph, of the 1963 March on Washington, but his activism goes way back. He was jailed for refusing to fight in World War II. Can you tell us a brief history of Bayard Rustin?
JOHN D’EMILIO: Sure. I actually could go on forever, but I won’t. Rustin was one of the most important social justice activists in the U.S. in the 20th century. He—as a teenager in West Chester, Pennsylvania, he stood up against racial segregation. He moved to New York in the late 1930s, joined the Communist Party for a while, got a sense of the injustices of capitalism, but basically then, in the 1940s, '50s and into the ’60s, made his home in the peace movement in organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League at a time not only when we were faced with a world war and a cold war, but also when peace activists were coming to realize you can't have peace without racial justice.
And in the ’40s and ’50s especially, Rustin pioneered in the use of Gandhian nonviolence as a way of calling attention to segregation and other forms of racism in the United States. So, he organized a freedom ride in the 1940s, long before the Freedom Rides that many of us know about in the 1960s. And in addition to his work against nuclear weapons, when the Montgomery Bus Boycott started at the end of 1955 and word traveled north that this was happening, Rustin, with 15 years of experience, you know, breaking the law nonviolently, went down to Montgomery, Alabama, introduced himself to Dr. King, and began a process of mentoring and tutoring someone who was clearly destined to be a great leader, but tutoring him so that Gandhian nonviolence would become central to how Dr. King conducted these freedom struggles.
Rustin wrote up the plans for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. With A. Philip Randolph, he organized events in Washington, D.C., in the '50s, so that Dr. King would have a national platform, so that by 1963, when there was a convergence on this idea of "let's finally march on Washington," Rustin was better prepared than anyone to be the organizer of that event.
AMY GOODMAN: Early in his life, Bayard Rustin challenged segregation, as you talked about, and racism; in high school, arrested for refusing to sit in a West Chester movie theater segregated balcony. In this clip from the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, which just aired last night on LIW’s World Channel, Rustin recollects how he responded to racism.
BAYARD RUSTIN: I once went into the little restaurant next to the Warner Theatre, and—can you believe it?—there was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion in which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood. I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent-minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out, because they took up a collection.
AMY GOODMAN: Bayard Rustin also promoted the philosophy of nonviolence and the practices of nonviolent resistance, which he had observed while working with Gandhi’s movement in India. This is another clip from the film Brother Outsider.
BAYARD RUSTIN: After many years spent studying Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence, I was fortunate to receive an invitation to visit India. I sought to deepen my understanding of civil disobedience. Gandhi satisfied an inner need in me.
INTERVIEWER: If England does not grant your demands, what course of action will you follow then?
MAHATMA GANDHI: Civil disobedience.
INTERVIEWER: Are you prepared to return to jail?
MAHATMA GANDHI: I am always prepared to return to jail.
DEVI PRASAD: Bayard came to India in 1948 to attend the first World Pacifist Conference. But, unfortunately, Gandhi had already been assassinated. But Bayard met almost everybody. He talked about the work in the United States about nonviolence. He said, "We are not there to avoid conflicts. We have to turn conflicts into creative conflicts." And that has remained in my mind throughout.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s another clip from Brother Outsider, directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates. We’re going to break and come back to our discussion about the significance of Bayard Rustin, who, together with 15 others, will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are John D’Emilio, who wrote the book Lost Prophet about Bayard Rustin; Julian Bond, former chair of the NAACP, worked with Bayard Rustin for years; and Walter Naegle, who was Bayard Rustin’s partner from 1977 until Rustin’s death in 1987, now the archivist for the Bayard Rustin Estate.
When you heard the announcement last week about Bayard Rustin being honored along with 15 others with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, what were your thoughts, and what do you think Bayard’s would have been?
WALTER NAEGLE: Well, I was tremendously happy. It’s a great honor, and especially coming at this time, just before the anniversary of the march, and, of course, from the first African-American president. I mean, Bayard would have been delighted, and I think he would actually be surprised that we have an African-American president so soon in our history after he died.
All of the Big—what was known as the Big Six, the leaders of the Big Six civil rights organizations that issued the call for the march—Mr. Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Dr. King, John Lewis, Jim Farmer, Whitney Young—they’ve all received the Medal of Freedom. And Bayard was kind of this hidden seventh, if you will, kind of behind the scenes pulling the strings and organizing, with an awful lot of very dedicated volunteers. He didn’t do it by himself.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s amazing. When you actually look at the Life magazine cover of the march, it wasn’t Dr. King, it was A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
WALTER NAEGLE: Correct, correct. I’ve heard it said, you know, that Dr. King gave a wonderful speech, but people really didn’t even start recognizing the significance of the speech until a couple of years after it was given, really. It was part of, you know, a day of many speeches.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about the controversies around all of this. Three weeks before the March on Washington, Senator Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina segregationist, publicly attacked Bayard Rustin on the floor of the Senate. He read reports of Rustin’s arrest for homosexual behavior from a decade earlier. In this clip from the film Brother Outsider, Senator Thurmond accuses Rustin of immoral behavior. Rustin responds.
SEN. STROM THURMOND: The article states that he was convicted in 1953 in Pasadena, California, of a morals charge. The words "morals charge" are true. But this is a clear-cut case of toning down the charge. The conviction was sex perversion.
BAYARD RUSTIN: The senator is not interested in me if I were a murderer, a thief, a liar or a pervert. The senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement. He will not get away with this.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bayard Rustin himself, responding to the segregationist senator, Strom Thurmond. Walter Naegle, talk about—what was so unusual about Bayard Rustin, he was open as a gay man from decades before, the 1940s.
WALTER NAEGLE: Mm-hmm. Well, I think really the main difference between somebody like Bayard Rustin and Senator Thurmond, Bayard came out of a tradition of authenticity, of openness. He was raised as a Quaker by his grandmother. And part of the Quaker values and tradition is, you know, being honest, searching for the truth and not really having secrets. And I think, as we all know, Senator Thurmond had plenty of secrets of his own, but he—and he was not quite so open about them.
AMY GOODMAN: But, in fact, John D’Emilio, isn’t it true that Bayard Rustin had to distance himself, or, I should say, Dr. King distanced himself from Bayard Rustin, though he relied on him as a trusty adviser, because of his concern whether he was being described as a communist or a gay man?
JOHN D’EMILIO: Yes, at different points, there were—there was a distance between Dr. King and Bayard, but in different ways. I mean, Bayard himself was very aware that given social attitudes towards homosexuality and gay men and lesbians, he couldn’t wear it on his sleeve. He couldn’t, you know, be out there with the rainbow flag. This was before gay liberation. So Bayard himself was perfectly happy to keep this in the background and to move out of the way, if that was going to be good for the movement.
What made him unhappy and what made him feel like he had been done wrong was when people disavowed him. And there was a point, in 1960, when Rustin and Mr. Randolph and Dr. King were part of organizing major demonstrations at the presidential conventions, Republicans and Democrats, and at that point Representative Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem didn’t like the fact that these radicals, someone like Bayard Rustin, was getting so much attention and moving into his sphere in the Democratic Party. And he put out the word to Dr. King that if you don’t distance yourself from Bayard Rustin, I am going to claim that there is something going on between the two of you. And that scared Dr. King, and Bayard made the decision to resign from his position. But he also expected at that point that he would be defended. And when he wasn’t defended, it was—it was painful. It was very painful. And he spent a couple of years, mostly—in the early '60s, mostly involved in the peace movement rather than in the civil rights movement because of that rupture. And it's the March on Washington that brought him back into the center of things.
AMY GOODMAN: Julian Bond, can you describe Bayard Rustin as an organizer and talk about these tensions, as well?
JULIAN BOND: Well, it was obvious that he was just superb at getting people together. You can’t think—I mean, I could not think of anybody else who at the time would have stepped forward, taken hold of this March on Washington, pull together all these hundreds of thousands of peoples, the buses, the trains. You know, I saw something just recently: They made 800,000 sandwiches. Imagine that. And it was all done at Bayard Rustin’s desire.
One thing I think we’re not hearing about Bayard Rustin is his sense of humor. He once said that Dr. King couldn’t bring vampires to a bloodbath. That was the kind of organizer Dr. King was not. But Bayard Rustin knew he was an organizer and was just wonderful at getting people to do things that they didn’t think they could do or didn’t know they wanted to do. He was just a great, great person.
AMY GOODMAN: Walter Naegle, there’s a funny scene in Brother [Outsider] when there is Bayard, 5:30 in the morning, on the Mall, August 28, 1963. All the press is around him, and of course there’s no one there. This is very early in the morning. The press saying, "So, see? No one’s here." It’s 5:30 in the morning. And he said he took a white piece of paper, a blank piece of paper, that they couldn’t see it was blank, and he looked at his clock. He said, "No, everything is going according to plan right now." But he said he had no idea how many people would come.
WALTER NAEGLE: Yes, that’s true. That shows the kind of sense of humor that Bayard had. At that point they weren’t really sure. I mean, there was a press conference 10 days or so before, and he thought maybe 100,000 people. But, of course, when you’re out there and you’re just surrounded by the people that have been working with you, I guess it got a little bit—a little scary. But it wasn’t long before suddenly throngs of people started pouring out of Penn Station and buses started pulling up and parking. So, they really got a strong sense, I think, probably by 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. that this was going to be something really big.
AMY GOODMAN: And then there was the union organizing after 1963, running the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Julian Bond, I wanted to ask you also about A. Philip Randolph, the—one of the great organizers of the 20th century. His protégé was Bayard Rustin. And Bayard Rustin ran that institute, bringing together labor and civil rights—often unions referred to as racist.
JULIAN BOND: It’s interesting to me to hear Walter call A. Philip Randolph "Mr. Randolph." And if I were to speak about him, I would call him "Mr. Randolph." And when John Lewis agreed to censor his speech at the March on Washington, he said, "I couldn’t say no to Mr. Randolph," because all of us thought of him in that way and held him in such, such great concern about his dignity and so on. He was that kind of person. He was a perfect mentor for Bayard, somebody who could say, "Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you try this? Don’t do that. Don’t do this." Just a wonderful mentor for him, and a guy who helped shape his—I think, his political outlook. And, you know, for all of his life, Rustin was a great believer and defender in organized labor, and fought for it as much as he could. And it’s a shame that we don’t have someone like him now who is such a great spokesman for working people.
AMY GOODMAN: In his later years, gay rights was extremely important to, Walter—I mean, throughout his life, but he actually started because of the movement that was growing around him, Walter.
WALTER NAEGLE: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yes, he started speaking out about his own experiences as a gay man. And he was being invited to conferences and conventions by gay groups and being interviewed in the gay press. And so, he was much—well, he was more comfortable and more open about who he was and what his experiences had been. I think he was a little surprised and delighted. I mean, at that point he was in his sixties, early seventies. And, you know, the gay movement, as I remember, when it first started, it was really largely a movement of young people. So I think they were kind of seeing him as a senior figure, as an elder, if you will.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds, but A.J. Muste was another critical influence, A. Philip Randolph and A.J. Muste. John D’Emilio, if you could just summarize who this pacifist was.
JOHN D’EMILIO: A.J. Muste was one of the most important pacifists in the 20th century. He brought a sense that racial justice and world peace are interconnected, and so pacifists should fight against colonialism as well as against war. And he was a mentor to Bayard for quite a number of years.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the conversation afterwards and talk about the upcoming March on Washington, and put it on our website at democracynow.org. Click here to see part 2 of this interview. John D’Emilio, Julian Bond, Walter Naegle, thank you so much. Walter Naegle, will you be at the White House?