Bayard Rustin—the civil rights organizer and top lieutenant to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—is finally receiving much of the recognition that he deserved. Tonight and throughout the week, gay-themed LOGO screens Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, the documentary that explores his many accomplishments and exposes why so little is reported of him in black history—because he was openly gay.
"It wasn’t something he focused on, but I think there was a general feeling that had he not been gay, the way he was able to save lives in the movement, or ascend to a leadership position [wouldn’t have had as many] obstacles," says Walter Naegle, Rustin’s surviving partner, who will speak on Wednesday in Atlanta on Rustin's legacy.
Rustin was a gifted political strategist and superb orator, undoubtedly one of the most prominent black gay figures of the 20th century for his instrumental role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, most notably organizing the famous 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.
As a form of narration, Brother Outsider relies on the FBI's chilling and extensive surveillance records of Rustin. The reports document a 1953 arrest for lewd vagrancy in Pasadena, California, where the police caught Rustin performing oral sex in the backseat of a
car\—with two men. His subsequent arrest and 60-day prison sentence was an albatross around his neck, and often exploited by whites who were opposed to civil rights
and black leaders who were jealous of MLK's prominence.
The documentary also details one little-known fact: Rustin was briefly separated from Dr. King's campaign because Rep. Adam Clayton Powell threatened to expose a fabricated sex scandal between the two.
Later in life, Rustin became a gay activist and said the discrimination against gays and lesbians needed to be addressed with the same passion that was used to oppose Jim Crow. "The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community," he said in 1986, one year before dying. "It's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated."