Bayard Rustin - The Civil Rights Movement's Lost Prophet

Shevry Lassiter | 2/9/2012, 12:45 p.m.

Laurence Guyot Jr., 72, of Northwest, a retired attorney and civil rights activist who is still active today in political and civil rights issues, said Rustin's sexual orientation was an open secret.

"A lot of people in SNCC liked Bayard and some people looked at him as a hero," he said. "The greatest secret ever kept is that there are gay people in every Black church and they didn't just come in yesterday. The music minister was usually gay and everybody knew it, but you never heard of a pastor kicking someone out of the choir because they are gay."

"Now the Black church has become openly anti-gay. Black people were very receptive of gay people whether civil rights leaders or not; we only recently learned that we are not supposed to take that position. Bayard was able to move about freely and he did a lot to influence [the movement]."

Walter Naegle, Rustin's life partner, and 37 years his junior at the time they met, said he felt it was "really love at first sight," after meeting Rustin on a New York City street corner. Naegle acknowledged Rustin's seminal role in the movement. "[He] helped mold Martin Luther King Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence."

According to Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, "Rustin was a key strategist in every campaign King waged in the 1960s."

Bennett Singer, filmmaker and co-producer and director of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, attended the NMWA event, and showed a clip of the documentary where it mentioned Congressman Walter Fauntroy's position on Rustin.

Fauntroy, a Baptist minister and one of the organizers of the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1983, fought against gay inclusion on the program, which was thought to be a direct aim at Bayard Rustin.

The Washington Informer was unable to reach Rev. Fauntroy for his comment on this article.

"Unfortunately the conservative Baptist church have always taken a sometimes very ugly stance against people who are gay shutting them out significantly and I'm sure if it were true 40 years ago it is still true today," said Bernard Demcuzk, a professor of African American History at the School Without Walls in Northwest.

"Some preachers have the attitude that homosexuality is a sin so [some] would say no to honoring Bayard Rustin, but it's a minority opinion. People [should be] judged by their works, not by their words, and not by their differences. I think across the board Bayard was well received in both the Black community and in the white community because he was totally dedicated to human rights, equal rights, and social justice," Demcuzk said.

"It is these three pillars of American values that Bayard Rustin demonstrated with excellence and with compassion. And that's why he should be honored today and that's why he is honored today. Bayard was not just a great Black man but he was a great American."