I didn’t plan on watching Soviet Communism die, but I did. The child of Polish and Slovak immigrants, I had traveled to my ancestral homelands a few times before I left to study for a year, 1988-89. I didn’t know in advance that I’d be attending meetings with Jacek Kuron, the “godfather of the Polish opposition,” or marching in the street chanting “Soviets go home,” or running from riot police and being tear gassed and shot with water canons. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.
I returned to the States. Before shouting slogans at communism’s riot police, I had previously been a Peace Corps volunteer, a nurse’s aide, a volunteer with the Sisters of Charity, an inner city teacher, and a door-to-door canvasser. I’d had ample opportunity to consider how one “saves the world,” or to be less grandiose, how one attempts to right wrongs.
I’d learn to distrust what I dubbed “virtue celebrities.” My rule: the more a person in our group became known for his “compassion,” the less reliable that person was in the trenches. You can’t predict in advance who the hero will be once you are in a foxhole. Chances are it won’t be the person whose face is Velcroed to reporters’ cameras.
In the all-night strategy sessions debating how to right wrongs, two moments stand out. The first moment occurred one night in Nepal when we were sitting around the Momo Cave, a dingy hole-in-the-wall where men drank raksi, a foul moonshine. A beautiful young Peace Corps volunteer, accompanying herself on guitar, began singing a song written by Donovan about Saint Francis of Assisi.
“If you want your dream to be
Take your time, go slowly
Do few things but do them well
Heartfelt work grows purely.”
I thought, my God, that’s it. We all wanted to “save the world,” to perform some grand gesture. We couldn’t bring clean water to every Nepali village, but we could teach one kid to read. In Poland, we used to say, “Everybody wants to die for Poland, but who is willing to live for Poland?” Who was willing to do the thankless, anonymous, unglamorous day-to-day work?
The second moment occurred in a living room in Bloomington, Indiana, when I found myself sitting face to face with Lech Walesa. Walesa was the son of a man imprisoned and ultimately killed by Nazis. Walesa was himself a former auto mechanic, shipyard electrician, TIME man of the year, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Polish president. By the time I met Walesa in 1998, the Soviet Union was an historical fossil and Poland was doing better and better everyday. I asked Walesa how Poland had avoided the traps so many other post-revolutionary populations had fallen into. He didn’t hesitate. He immediately and thoroughly credited Christianity for Poland’s revolutionary and post-revolutionary successes.
After I got back from Poland in 1989, I watched and re-watched a PBS documentary series, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement. I fell into the TV screen. I didn’t just watch Eyes on the Prize, I inhabited it. Back in Poland, Poles were debating the same issues that had preoccupied 1960s Civil Rights activists. In fact the same issues had been debated over the century-plus when Poland was colonized by Prussia, Russia, and Austria.
Nowadays Woke and critical race theory insist that whites and blacks are as different as birds and fish. The difference in skin color between me and the main characters of Eyes on the Prize was immaterial. What mattered was that we were all asking the same question: what is the best way to right wrongs? Dramatic, suicidal gestures of defiance? Emigration? Violence? Non-violent resistance? “Acting as if” you lived in a normal country, even though you did not? Working within the system? Romantic nationalists, positivists, émigré poets, and the uncounted Polish serfs who drank themselves into an early grave all offered different answers, as did Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
Of course I recognized Martin Luther King as the charismatic poster boy, the sine qua non of the Civil Rights Movement. But his speeches struck me as grandiloquent performances. I always wonder, “What’s behind the performance?” Discovering that he plagiarized his dissertation and that he treated women shabbily didn’t help.
Eyes on the Prize introduced me, briefly, to Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987). You can see about twenty percent of Rustin’s face in a photograph at the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. King, delivering his “I have a dream” speech, occupies the center of the photo. Rustin, standing to King’s right, has been mostly cropped out of the frame. Eyes on the Prize informed viewers that Rustin could not take center stage. He was openly homosexual. Rustin’s sidelined status is reflected in works about him. A 2003 documentary is titled Brother Outsider. A 2004 book is titled Lost Prophet.
Bayard Rustin was born on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1912 in West Chester Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. His father abandoned him and he was raised by loving grandparents. His grandmother was a Quaker and his grandfather was a member of an African Methodist Episcopal church. His grandparents operated a successful catering business. Rustin moved to Manhattan, sang professionally, and eventually became a mentee of Asa Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American-led labor union, and Reverend AJ Muste, a white, Protestant pacifist and executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Rustin moved to California as part of an effort to protect the property of interned Japanese.
In 1942, years before Rosa Parks’ famous 1955 protest, Rustin sat in the front of a bus. A child touched him; the child’s mother said, “Don’t touch a n—–.” Rustin was asked to move to the back of the bus. He refused, saying that if he complied, the child would not realize that it was wrong to order a black man to sit in back. A policeman arrived and beat him. Rustin, a pacifist, did not resist. “But some white passengers, impressed by his courage, spoke out on his behalf,” reports the National WW II Museum. Later, Rustin would serve twenty-two days on a chain gang for participating in a Freedom Ride consisting of equal numbers of white and black activists sitting together. Rustin would eventually be arrested twenty-three times.
He studied non-violence with Gandhians in India. He educated Martin Luther King in non-violence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin said, “Dr. King’s view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent … Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns.” Rustin’s non-violence was so radical that he convinced King to surrender his own handgun and to forgo armed guards. Rustin and King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. MLK delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington, an event planned by Bayard Rustin.
Like King, Rustin was an imperfect person. He joined the Young Communist League in 1936 when he was 24. He was a conscientious objector during World War II and was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the armed forces. In 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena for having sex in a car. (By the way, according to a recent survey, 84% of Americans have engaged in intimate activity in a car.)
Rustin lived long enough to reverse course. The Communist Party promised an end to racism. Rustin was smart enough eventually to see through the Party’s false promises and he left it in 1941. Contemporary black conservative Coleman Hughes observes that Rustin, “quickly left the communists. He never described himself as a Marxist in his essays or letters explicitly, and he opposed communism throughout the Cold War.”
In fact there is a Bayard Rustin connection to Solidarity, the Polish trade union. Tom Kahn (1938-1992) was Rustin’s colleague and, for a time, his lover. In 1980, during a time of crisis and opportunity in Poland, AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland appointed Kahn to organize the union’s aid to Solidarity. Kahn called Solidarity “the most important workers’ movement to have appeared in half a century … To do all in our power to nourish and extend the life of Solidarity is the overriding compelling mission of the AFL-CIO … we do not accept the legitimacy of the communist party’s rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe … we look to the transformation of the Soviet system, however long it takes; to its dismantling by non-nuclear means.”
Rachelle Horowitz worked with Rustin for seventeen years. She said that Rustin told her that “had he known what was going on in terms of the Holocaust, he would have gone as an ambulance driver … he would have not opposed the war the way he did.”
In 1970, Rustin stunned and outraged his pacifist comrades by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging the US to send fighter jets to Israel. Horowitz, again: “Bayard was absolutely convinced that next to the labor movement the Jewish community had been the greatest support” of Civil Rights. Rustin opposed anti-Semitism. As for the fighter jets, by then Rustin had begun to call himself a “post-Niebuhr Quaker.” Reinhold Niebuhr was a formerly pacifist theologian who, with Saint Augustine, came to argue for a “Christian realism.”
In 1977, Rustin entered into a committed relationship with Walter Naegle, who would remain Rustin’s partner till his death in 1987. They could not marry, so, to protect his partner’s visitation and financial rights, Rustin legally adopted Naegle.
Rustin died on August 24, 1987, at age 75. The next day, President Ronald Reagan released a statement. “We mourn the loss of Bayard Rustin, a great leader … He will be sorely missed by all those who shared his commitment to the twin causes of peace and freedom … Mr. Rustin understood that the struggle for the two is inseparable … This took great physical, intellectual, and, most of all, moral courage. He was denounced by former friends, because he never gave up his conviction that minorities in America could and would succeed based on their individual merit … Though a pacifist, he was a fighter to the finish. That is why over the course of his life he won the undying love of all who cherish freedom.”
In Rustin, I see in action the two principles epitomized in the above two moments. Like that beautiful young singer in the Momo Cave, Rustin focused on doing small things and doing them well. Rustin was a meticulous planner. He was the guy who made sure that there were enough port-o-potties because “We can’t have any disorganized pissing in Washington.” Rachelle Horowitz snickered when Rustin suggested tens of thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches be prepared for marchers. Rustin reprimanded her. It’s going to be hot in Washington in summer. Peanut butter may be a humble food, but it won’t spoil and make people ill, he pointed out.
Lech Walesa insisted to me that the one feature that supported the Poland’s success in its battle with Soviet Communism and its successful post-Communist transition was Christianity. Bayard Rustin, in a 1986 letter, wrote “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being black. Rather it is rooted … in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal. Adhering to those values has meant making a stand against injustice.” The concept of a single human family of equals springs from the creation story in Genesis. It is reiterated in Galatians 3:28-29.
“Rustin’s Quaker, AME Faith Shaped the Civil Rights Era,” reported Sojourners in 2021. Rustin’s public talks were “deeply founded in scripture” and peppered with references to Jesus and the Bible, according to Walter Naegle. After moving to Manhattan, Rustin joined the Fifteenth Street Meeting, a Quaker congregation. He worked with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, under the leadership of Protestant Minister AJ Muste.
Rustin would be as difficult for many to appreciate in 2023 as he was in 1963. Many of his writings and speeches are every bit as pertinent, and as potentially controversial, today as they were sixty years ago.
Leftists and black identity politicians have denounced Rustin as a “neocon” who, treacherously, supported “American imperialism” and “private property.” Amiri Baraka described him as a “big gun of white oppression” and a “slave ship profiteer.” In the documentary Brother Outsider, one can see a black protestor holding a sign reading “F– Bayard.” That is, the sign uses an anti-gay slur. In 2022, YouTuber “Professor BlackTruth” insisted that Bayard Rustin was a “scumbag,” a traitor to black people, and a government spy.
In 1964, Bayard Rustin tried to stop violence during riots in Harlem. After rioting blacks accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” because of his non-violence, Rustin replied, “Sure, I’m a Tom, and I’m prepared to be a Tom, when I can save women and children from being shot down in the street, and if you’re not, you’re nothing but a fool.” One might imagine Rustin saying the same thing, and facing the same accusation, during the BLM riots of 2020.
On August 13, 1963, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond condemned Rustin on the Senate floor, calling him a “pervert.” Ironically, Thurmond had his own sexual secret. In 1925, he had fathered a child by a fifteen-year-old black servant girl. Thurmond’s goal was to undermine the then upcoming March on Washington, but his plan backfired. Thurmond was a notorious segregationist, and no blacks wanted to be seen to be supporting him. So, they supported Rustin.
While some have a problem with Rustin’s homosexuality, others might find him to be not “gay enough” or not the right kind of gay. Professor and author Michael G. Long said that Rustin “wasn’t camp. He didn’t wear his sexuality on his sleeve as gay liberationists did.” Invited to contribute to an anthology of black, gay authors, Rustin declined. “I did not ‘come out of the closet’ voluntarily – circumstances forced me out … While I support full equality, under law, for homosexuals, I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter.” Rustin wrote, further, that it was being a Quaker, not being black or gay, that was the foundation of his public life of activism. Thus, it was a Christian ideal, rather than a racial or sexual identity, that was the primary motivator, to him.
In a 1970 letter, Rustin articulated his opposition to identity politics. It was the power of the truth, rather than the speaker’s identity, that rendered words worth listening to, he insisted. “All too many blacks fall into the trap of calling any white person who disagrees with them a racist. I have always considered this practice unethical … [One] who is intellectually competent … can defend a position without having to stoop to name calling. It follows from this introduction of ad hominem attacks into political discourse that a white person cannot talk about problems affecting blacks and vice versa … People who engage in such attacks … will build no more than a Tower of Babel.”
Bayard Rustin debated Malcolm X multiple times. Malcolm X was younger and more handsome than Rustin. He offered a slicker package. In their debates, Malcolm X repeatedly praises Allah. He says that Islam is directly opposed to Christianity. He mocks Christianity’s emphasis on meekness and forgiveness. Africa was an Islamic Utopia of high culture, stolen from the black man by the white man. Islam is the black man’s true religion; Christianity is “white.” Malcolm X repeatedly defers, worshipfully, to “the honorable Elijah Muhammad,” the man who would eventually call for Malcolm X’s assassination, after Malcolm X exposed Elijah Muhammad’s sexual abuse of underage girls.
When he was still a member of Elijah Muhammad’s cult, Malcolm X offered listeners a very easy solution to their problems. There were no individuals in Malcolm X’s rhetoric. There was only one enemy, “the white man,” and he was the source of all evil. There was one victim and hero, “the black man,” the source of all things good. Malcolm X repeats, ad nauseum, accusations of the pure evil of the white man. The white man robs, beats, and destroys the black man. The white man is a slave owner. The black man is a slave. Nothing has changed since the Emancipation Proclamation. The black man would defeat the white man with violence and enter the Utopia of the Nation of Islam. The black man will claim several US states as a black homeland. “We believe that separation” between blacks and whites “is divine,” he says.
Malcolm X advances conspiracy theories that mesh with contemporary critical race theory. As taught by critical race theory, if the white man does anything positive for the black man, it is only because the white man stands to benefit thereby. The Cold War motivates the white man. The white man only is “giving an inch” to the black man to buttress his reputation as “leader of the free world,” especially in Africa’s newly independent nations. The white man will never “integrate you and me.” The black man will still not have rights “a hundred years from now.”
Malcolm X aims directly at the listeners’ lizard brains. Hate! Violence! Grievance! Revenge! Malcolm X literally recommends “an eye for an eye,” which leaves the whole world blind. In audio of the debates, one can hear Malcolm X receiving the more enthusiastic applause.
Malcolm X is notorious for saying, after the Kennedy assassination, that that assassination was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” One might use the same phrase in reference to Malcolm X’s life. Elijah Muhammad, whom Malcolm X praised repeatedly, would call for the assassination of Malcolm X. Malcolm X’s grandson, also named Malcolm, would eventually set the fire that would kill Malcolm X’s widow. And that grandson would himself be murdered in Mexico. Qubilah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, was arrested for plotting the assassination of Louis Farrakhan. One can’t help but think of Matthew 26:52.
Bayard Rustin refutes just about every plank of Malcolm X’s platform. He offers listeners a far more complicated, and demanding, worldview. “The problem can never be stated in terms of black and white,” Rustin has the courage to say. Rustin praised white Civil Rights hero James Peck. Rustin said, “in a showdown, I will stand with Jim Peck sooner than I will stand with many Negroes I know.” Whites are not the only source of evil; some whites are good; some blacks are bad. America has progressed. “The problem is man’s injustice to man.” Rustin warned that NOI “will become the thing it hates most. That is the danger of the Muslim movement, that it itself will become a doctrine of superiority, except it will be a black one as against a white one.” Rustin calls NOI an “apartheid” movement. In a Muslim theocracy, Rustin says, black men like him would be decapitated.
Rustin, who was an art collector, mentions that the best art from West Africa depicted human faces and bodies; Islam forbids such art. In other words, Islam, Rustin points out, was not the religion of most slaves brought to the US and African art is proof of that. Rustin points out that the NOI is anti-Semitic, and NOI believes in complete separation between blacks and whites. NOI shares these two positions and with Nazism and the KKK; thus, NOI formed an alliance with Neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell, who promised that he would “put all Jews in the gas chamber.”
Rustin recommends integration. Blacks will “get involved in the economic and social life in America.” Blacks must become an “integral part” of the United States and “all of its institutions.” He believes that all humans are members of the same human family. Rustin recommends “constitutional methods … going to the courts.” Full citizenship rights will come about because Negroes “with a sense of dignity and pride,” will engage in self-sacrifice and “organize themselves” through actions like the Montgomery bus boycott and student sit-in movement. The ultimate goal is “freedom and justice for all people.” Rustin points out that through the “slow grinding process of integration … America has made considerable progress.” “Up until 1954 we did not have integration of schools. And now we do. Negroes were kept out of trade unions. But now they are being integrated into them.” America is “in a very good position to point to a considerable amount of progress.” Rustin clearly rejects Malcolm X’s invitation to wallow in a paralyzing victim identity. Walter Naegle described Rustin as “a forgiving person.” Rustin’s Christian ability to forgive made it possible for him to move forward and not to wallow in grievances over past injustice.
He points out that Malcolm X’s scheme of taking the territory of several US states is unworkable and will never happen. Given that what Malcolm X wants can’t ever happen, he’s basically offering black people nothing but pie in the sky schemes.
Malcolm X’s value system supported NOI affiliating with a Neo-Nazi. Bayard Rustin’s value system supported his defending a white professor. In 1982, the Harvard Black Law Student Coalition and the Harvard Third World Coalition boycotted a Harvard class entitled ”Racial Discrimination and Civil Rights.” Jack Greenberg was to teach the class. Greenberg, white and Jewish, was a legend. He argued forty civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v Board of Education, and won most of them. He had commanded soldiers in the Pacific Theater of World War II. When asked if he was afraid to walk through protestors to get to class, he replied, “No, I was on the beach at Iwo Jima.”
In an August 9, 1982 letter to the New York Times, Rustin wrote, “The objection that Mr. Greenberg is white is nothing more than blatant racism.” The student protest was “destructive and irresponsible … Blacks, as victims of racial discrimination, should be the first to reject the view that race can disqualify one … young blacks are pursuing their education … as a consequence of the opportunities opened to them by the civil rights battles waged inside and outside the courts by both blacks and whites … It is ironic – indeed perhaps tragic – that they would vent their rage on … a man who has contributed in no small measure to the freedom and dignity of young black Americans.”
In 1969, Rustin interrogated the concept of “black studies.” Is “black studies,” he asked, “an educational program or a forum for ideological indoctrination? Is it designed to train qualified scholars in a significant field of intellectual inquiry, or is it hoped that is graduates will form political cadres? … Is it intended to provide a false and sheltered sense of security, the fragility of which would be revealed by even the slightest exposure to reality? Does it offer the possibility for better racial understanding, or is it a regression to racial separatism?”
Thomas A. Billings, Director of Project Upward Bound at the Office of Economic Opportunity and a “white liberal,” wrote an open letter to Rustin. Daniel P. Moynihan characterized Billings’ open letter as “incredible … outrageous … an intolerable injury … a government official, on stationary of the Executive Office of the President, directed an extended personal attack against a private citizen … the issue is the intimidation by Government of a private citizen because of his holding disapproved opinions. This is the essence of thought control in a totalitarian state. Those who express thoughts disapproved of by those who control the government machinery are vilified and defamed; others who might be so tempted are warned of the consequences in the most vulgar terms, ‘You, too, can get in trouble.'”
As Moynihan describes, above, over fifty years ago, Rustin was a victim of “cancel culture,” because he was not black enough, or the right kind of black. The person who would cancel this black Civil Rights hero was a white liberal employed by the government to push “black studies.”
In his open letter, Billings is passionate. He insists that without separate “studies” devoted to each oppressed ethnic group, American school children would be crippled by shame. American liberal education, Billings insists, is in “eclipse” and “bankrupt.” “What is real? What is good? What is true?” Billings asks, echoing postmodernist rejection of objective truth. Old answers no longer suffice, Billings insists. Now, black students need to study black music in school. Such courses will make Mexican, or Indian, or black students feel pride.
Rustin responded. Rustin says that Billings, as a “white liberal,” suffers from “self contempt” and a feeling of “extraordinary guilt.” Rustin’s analysis of Billings’ white liberalism is worth quoting at length, as it remains as pertinent today as it was when it was first written.
“There is a psychological phenomenon occurring today among increasing numbers of affluent highly-educated Americans like yourself that has been variously described as anomie, alienation, identity crisis. These people suffer from a sense of dislocation and dispossession which has given rise to a political orientation that Arnold Toynbee has called ‘subjective proletarianism.’ It is a romantic form of politics rooted in guilt, acutely sensitive to problems concerning individuality and identity, and characterized by a peculiar combination of self-deprecation and snobbish patronization. Thus it is not surprising that this lumpen intelligentsia would react with unusual enthusiasm to the position of black nationalists, would romanticize their demands for separatism and self-determination, and would identify these demands as the position of the ‘black community,’ which, in fact, they represent the views of a small minority of Negroes. Negroes have been used and exploited in many ways by white Americans, but it is only recently that they have been asked to satisfy the masochistic craving of disenchanted liberals for flagellation and rejection.”
Rustin’s full response can be read here.
In November, 2023, Netflix released Rustin, a biopic. Rustin was directed by George C. Wolfe, who had primarily been a theater director before moving to film and projects like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Nights in Rodanthe. Rustin is a product of the Higher Ground production company, founded by Barack and Michelle Obama. Rustin is 106 minutes long with a soundtrack by Branford Marsalis. The screenplay is by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black.
Rustin is a good movie and it’s well worth a watch, and then another watch, to catch everything you missed the first time. There is a lot of history onscreen. I could not resist, the first time I watched the movie, stopping it about every five minutes to perform internet searches of personalities, relationships, statements, and events. Did MLK really abandon Rustin so dramatically? Did Roy Wilkins really dislike Rustin so much? Was Adam Clayton Powell really such a shark? Did the March on Washington planners really meet in a building dubbed the Utopia Neighborhood Club House? Did Bayard Rustin really pick up trash after the March on Washington was over, and his more high-profile colleagues had left to meet face to face with the president in the White House?
The answer to all the above questions is “yes.” I was especially moved by the answer to the final question, which I acquired by writing directly to Walter Naegle, Rustin’s surviving partner, and Michael G. Long, a Rustin scholar. Yes, Bayard Rustin, a giant of Civil Rights, was excluded from the White House meeting. Yes, he did spend the post-March-on-Washington time period picking up trash leftover by marchers. Rustin was a man who instinctively knew the wisdom expressed in the Donovan’s song about Saint Francis,
“Day by day, stone by stone
Build your secret slowly
Day by day, you’ll grow too
You’ll know heaven’s glory.”
Rustin rewards the viewer with lots of eye candy. We get to enjoy retro clothes, cars, and sets. The men wear skinny ties and the ladies have trim waists, flared skirts, high heels, and poofy hairdos. Cars have fins.
Though this is a serious film dealing with a complex man’s internal struggles, the screenplay, the direction, and the soundtrack work together to keep the pace brisk and to develop character through action. In the first seven and a half minutes of the movie, the viewer gets lunch counter protests, school desegregation, the Montogomery bus boycott, in-fighting among Civil Rights leaders, a planned protest at the Democratic Convention, Martin Luther King and Rustin as best friends and allies, Adam Clayton Powell sabotaging that friendship with a false rumor of gay sex between them, and King, to save himself, betraying, and emotionally crushing, Rustin. This is all carried off to a snazzy, jazzy soundtrack and bravura performances from all the actors.
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin is the heart and soul of the film. He radiates joie de vivre and energetic, committed, idealism. He’s impossible not to like.
Gus Halper is a quiet but powerful presence as Tom Kahn. He’s mostly in the background, weaving in and out of scenes dominated by other characters. The viewer slowly learns that Tom is younger than Rustin, that he and Rustin were sometime lovers but that that did not work out because Rustin was the star and Tom was a mere, sometimes replaceable understudy to the great man’s life, and having sex with someone you work for is complicated. Eventually Rustin admits to Tom that he couldn’t give Tom what he needed and deserved because he, Rustin, was too focused on saving the world. When all the battles are won and when I’ve accomplished what I feel driven to accomplish, Rustin says to Tom, maybe then I’ll be able to fall in love and commit to one person.
But Tom will not allow others to define him. Tom has two powerful scenes where black characters attempt to belittle him because he is white. Tom won’t have it. He owns his power. He has sacrificed much to the Civil Rights struggle, and he demands to be acknowledged for that sacrifice, and for his accomplishments. Halper really impressed me in this role that, given its secondary status, could have been less memorable and less incisive. Halper vivifies Tom and lets the viewer know that the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have gone anywhere without whites like Tom.
Lilli Kay is lovely as Rachelle Horowitz but she’s given far too little to do. I hope that viewers become curious enough to watch YouTube videos of the real Rachelle Horowitz, who is funny and charming. She was the transportation coordinator for the March on Washington, even though she couldn’t drive and regularly lost her bus after previous demonstrations.
Rustin, in presenting Horowitz, Kahn, and other white Civil Rights activists, is to be credited for refusing the false narrative of Malcolm X or Nikole Hannah-Jones (who is, ironically, half Czech), that blacks and only blacks improve conditions for blacks. From the opening scene, which depicts both blacks and whites integrating lunch counters, to its final shots of the March on Washington, where an estimated twenty-four percent of the attendees were white, Rustin acknowledges the interracial cooperation that brought America to living up to its best ideals.
Glenn Turman is suitably stentorian and dignified as A. Philip Randolph. Chris Rock is suitably humorless and hostile as Roy Wilkins, one of Rustin’s nemeses. Maxwell Whittington-Cooper is a lovely, young John Lewis.
Jeffrey Wright hands in a hypnotic performance as an absolutely serpentine Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Wright is playing a bad guy but he does so with such over-the-top wickedness that I rewatched his scenes a few times. He really needs to be tapped for an Adam Clayton Powell biopic.
Rustin wants to get a lot of history on the screen, and it wants to do that in a hurry, so as not to alienate younger viewers with short attention spans. These conflicting agendas frequently undermine each other. For example, in one scene, Adam Clayton Powell is threatening Rustin, and suddenly Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), an historically significant Civil Rights figure, brings up the historically significant fact that women were shut out of speaking roles in the March on Washington. The script silences her after her brief protest. The issue is never resolved. Her juxtaposition with the Adam Clayton Powell subplot feels cluttered.
Rustin introduces a fictional character, Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey). He’s an organizer and a preacher. His wife Claudia is the daughter of a church pastor; she wants her father to pass his church on to Elias, so that she, Claudia, can drive a Lincoln, just like her mother. In other words, Claudia is materialistic and shallow.
Taylor comes on to Rusin in a men’s room. Later, Taylor preaches a sermon. The sermon is a series of double entendres. When Taylor speaks of God’s love, he’s really talking about sex with Rustin. The sermon scene is intercut with a scene of Rustin and Taylor having sex. Later, Taylor regrets his homosexuality, and condemns Rustin as satanic.
In a similarly Christophobic scene, AJ Muste (Bill Irwin) is depicted as a homophobic prig, borderline racist, and scold. In fact Muste was an historically significant Christian labor activist who worked to protect immigrant laborers, and a peace and Civil Rights activist. Of Muste, Bayard Rustin said, “During all my work with Martin King, I never made a difficult decision without talking the problem over with AJ first.” That relationship is betrayed by Rustin’s caricature of Muste.
I didn’t buy the relationship between Taylor and Rustin. It felt concocted merely to make several points. The sermon scene was Christophobic and insulting. Identifying Christianity as the wellspring of homophobia is inaccurate. Non-Christian cultures also express homophobia. Rustin is in a rush to cover a lot of personal and historical ground. The Taylor subplot took time away from better material and better scenes.
I really liked Rustin, but I didn’t love it. Bayard Rustin deserves a movie I could love. I’d like to see a movie more closely focused on Rustin the man. Such a film would be less worried about losing viewers with short attention spans. It would be willing to probe, to be complex, to take up the questions so many who want to right wrongs have debated for millennia. Violence or non-violence? Cooperation or pure resistance? Such a film might be denounced as slow, as talky, but so be it. We’re still asking these questions. We could benefit from an intimate view of how one man, Bayard Rustin, came up with his answers to these questions, and how and why they evolved as he aged.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery