Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bayard Rustin and Black History Month: Brother Outsider

One final posting before the day ends. Readers of Bilgrimage may have noted that the blog’s footer contains a quotation from Bayard Rustin: We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.

I’ve blogged a number of times about Bayard Rustin and his importance to both the black and the gay civil rights movement (e.g., and Rustin was an openly gay African-American Quaker and political activist, who was a close advisor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Because of his sexual orientation, King kept Rustin away from the front lines while relying on him for insight and sage guidance.

Bayard Rustin is an important point of contact between the African-American and the gay community, and the struggle of both communities for civil rights. Through his participation in both struggles, Rustin came to the conclusion that gay civil rights had become the “barometer” of civil rights in general at the end of the 20th century, as black civil rights had been in the first part of the century. In a 1987 interview he stated,

There are very few liberal Christians today who would dare say anything other than blacks are our brothers and they should be treated so, but they will make all kinds of hideous distinctions when it comes to our gay brothers . . . . There are great numbers of people who will accept all kinds of people: blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but who won’t accept fags. That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights (John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (NY: Free Press, 1993), p. 490, citing George Chauncey, Jr. and Lisa Kennedy, “Time on Two Crosses: An Interview with Bayard Rustin,” Village Voice, 30 June 1987, pp. 27-29).

Because of Bayard Rustin’s importance to the American civil rights movement, I’m happy to see that the latest newsletter of the United Methodist Reconciling Ministries Network has an article focusing on Rustin ( RMN recommends as a resource for Black History Month a recent documentary about Bayard Rustin entitled “Brother Outsider” (

I hadn’t known about this documentary, and now intend to find a copy. It looks outstanding. I’m glad to see RMN helping circulate information about this important resource and about one of the most significant, but often overlooked, figures of American civil rights struggles of the 20th century.