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‘Rustin’: Homophobia in the Civil Rights Movement

The March for Jobs and Freedom

The picture is of the back of the heads of protesters with a sign that reads, “Fight Today For a Better Tomorrow.”
Protest March — Marcus Spiske on Pexels

Rustin is the new documentary streaming and produced by Michelle and Barack Obama. It is an important piece of Civil Rights history, the first commercially produced film I have seen with the jousting among organizations and the power struggle among individuals on full display.

I worked in collaboration with an organization of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, co-led by Bayard Rustin, when I lived in New York City in the 70s. The nonprofit organizations and unions provided a platform for their leaders. A. Philip Randolph is one of the characters in Rustin. He organized and led The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an early trailblazer in economic security and equal rights.

The NAACP and the Urban League were perceived by young up-and-comers in SNCC and other organizations as too stodgy. (In the alphabet soup of organizations, NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and SNCC is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.)

I remember a fiery introductory speech by Bayard Rustin, and then the smoother speech by the head of the recruitment and training program who showed off his fine suit. He encouraged the young men of color — and it was primarily men — to get educated, get trained, and join the ranks of black workers and black capitalists.

Labor and civil rights were joined at the hip at that point in time.

I was working on affirmative action in the construction industry, a fresh college graduate, cheap hire, and learning a lot about the way the world really worked.

The 1963 March on Washington was organized around Jobs and Freedom. We tend to remember it only as the March on Washington when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

I was most surprised to learn in Rustin how quickly it came together, and how extensive all the details of organization for the march were. I had forgotten what a prominent role unions played.

Unions were then a fraternity, and apprenticeship and coveted union membership was often a father-to-son affair. I learned and long struggled with the principle that recruitment into closed economic advancement opportunities was not advertised and not open to people outside the already-existing network.

Early legislation in equal opportunity created specific criteria for how businesses would post, advertise, interview, and hire employees. Recruiting pictures and advertisements were to include people of color and women.

In the construction industry, businesses blamed labor union rules for the lack of representation, and unions of course blamed business.

It was a hard nut to break for those of us hired to create opportunities for people of color and for women. One of the ways the construction industry reacted, especially for those construction sites and unions that were mob controlled — an extra reality in New York City — was to create “community relations” positions. The Community Relations Coordinator was often a well-paid position filled by an amenable person of color who could keep trouble and protests away from the site.

Not long after Rustin’s inspirational speech, I was wandering around Greenwich Village and saw a drunken Bayard Rustin holding onto a male friend. When I discussed this overseen incident with my boss, he explained that Bayard was one of the few openly gay activists in the movements, labor and civil rights. He had needed to take his place behind the scenes, often, as a result.

Bayard, of course, was not the only homosexual activist in the Civil Rights movement, but others in leadership remained deeply closeted. In the current movie, this closeted identity is shown through a fictionalized relationship. It’s so odd, that working for one cause — equality among races — still risked a gay person’s disclosure and censure in The Cause. The Cause was not yet large enough and did not yet encompass everybody.

I remember being the only white person in a heated conversation among leaders of color that opening the idea of The Movement to everyone diluted the focus, vs. the argument that opening The Movement to everyone created a larger cause. The Civil Rights Movement did birth other movements of gender, sexual orientation, and racial identification. We are still figuring out identity politics and the backlash.

Labor unions were an important leg of the three-legged stool of equal opportunity — workers, unions, capital/owners. Now, in the years after COVID-19, there is a rise in strikes and union activity as the harsh shutdowns of Covid brought the issues of capital and workers into new examination.

What I more often see is the discussion of how to work on one’s own, from home, and earn money with diverse income streams remotely. Life moves on.

At the same time, we need to know and appreciate where we have come from.

Not to stay stuck in time, but to recognize old trends or old threats in new disguises.

The only time I was almost in a meeting with Donald Trump was when he was a new construction developer in Manhattan. He was on the phone with the Commissioner of Human Rights arguing vehemently against affirmative action goals on his construction project, the Hyatt Hotel by Grand Central Station. He had a forty-year tax abatement on the project, which only recently expired. Though he was feeding at the public trough he did not want to play by its rules.

Some things don’t change and are old threats in new disguises. History does inform the present.

Later, when SNCC was celebrating its 50th year anniversary of founding, some members disagreed with whether or not to invite the President, Barack Obama. He was born too late and hadn’t been part of the early movement. Old activists were doing what they did best, which was discuss/argue against the obvious victory.

But Obama did learn the lessons. He and Michelle Obama are now engaged in extraordinary storytelling.

Watch Rustin.

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3 Responses

  1. Jane
    | Reply

    Sharon, your posts are always interesting and often profound. Thank you so much.

    • Sharon Johnson

      Oh, thanks for commenting. Hope you had a good Thanksgiving and upcoming holidays!

  2. Jean Powers
    | Reply

    Thanks for the recommendation!

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