Wednesday, January 22, 2020
January 22, 2020: Expanding Civil Rights Memories: Bayard Rustin
[For this year’s MLK week series, I’ll highlight under-remembered figures, histories, and stories that can expand our collective memories of the Civil Rights Movement. Leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century voices!]
On the Civil Rights leader who illustrates the possibilities and challenges of intersectionality.
I’ve written a good deal in this space about the concept of hybridity (often linking it to my own idea of cross-cultural transformation, but the two concepts are of course closely tied), and about the processes of creolization that have influenced so many American identities and communities. For a time hybridity was a central frame through which many scholars of identity developed their ideas, but in recent years it has been supplanted by a somewhat parallel yet also distinct concept: intersectionality. As I understand it, intersectionality refers not so much to hybrid combinations of identities and more to the ways in which different sides of an individual’s identity (her race/ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, religion, class, and so on) can both relate to one another and influence her perspective and actions (even when they seem tied to one particular category). Two individuals about whom I’ve written in prior MLK week posts, Yuri Kochiyama and Coretta Scott King, certainly demonstrated the role intersectionality played in the Civil Rights Movement; and in an even more striking way, so did King’s colleague Bayard Rustin.
Rustin’s major contributions to the Civil Rights Movement itself represented one layer of intersectionality, as he consistently linked class, work, and labor union activism to his civil rights initiatives. A member of the Communist Party for many decades, he was, for one example, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which prominently featured labor leader and socialist A. Philip Randolph; a few years later Rustin would himself co-found and direct the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, which focused on integrating unions and linking the labor movement to African American communities and issues. Yet it was in response to another layer to his own identity that Rustin pursued his most unique intersectional activism: a gay man, he both fought for gay rights (doing so most publicly in the 1980s, before his death in 1987) and worked behind the scenes to make the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent racial activist efforts more tolerant and accepting of gay and lesbian members and Americans. Along with writer James Baldwin, Rustin was likely the most prominent African American gay man of the 20th century; and while Baldwin consistently occupied an iconoclastic position outside of any communal movement, Rustin fought for the intersections of his sexual and racial activisms.
Yet an accurate history of Rustin’s efforts has to include the fact that for many decades, and certainly throughout the era of the Civil Rights Movement, he lost that battle. That meant not only that he had to remain far quieter on the gay rights front than he likely preferred (again, not become a public spokesperson for the movement until the 80s), but also that he took on fewer public roles within the Civil Rights Movement as a result (it seems) of fears that he would be a controversial or even ineffective leader due to his sexuality (as well as his overt history with the Communist Party). None of that means that he could not be in his lifetime an activist for these multiple causes (he certainly was), nor that fighting for them at different times is necessarily a bad thing (no one, nor any movement, can fight for every issue at every moment). But it does remind us that intersectionality isn’t just about the role and influence of different sides to our identities—it’s also, and perhaps just as significantly, about the balances and choices we all have to make, as individuals and as communities. If Bayard Rustin helps us think about those challenges as well, that’d be just one more layer to his inspiring life and work.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Civil Rights figures, histories, or stories you’d want to add to our collective memories?