Who was the man who put Brother Martin on stage and organized the gathering of "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation"?
Who was the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States? What great visionary was responsible for importing Gandhi's protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and who through friendship, counsel and thoughtful collaboration helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into the international symbol of peace and nonviolence? Who was this man? Bayard Rustin.
Despite his achievements, Brother Bayard is largely forgotten. During his life, he was exiled, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. His name and his contributions have been nearly written out of stories of that rally on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the movement it represents.
Forty-five years after that March on Washington, it is now most certainly time all Black Americans can finally, in Dr. King's words from that day: "cash that check from our Constitution guaranteeing our 'unalienable rights.'" But 145 years later the Black gay man is still too often "found languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land." We face discrimination in employment, and relationship legal status, we can't serve openly in the military and suffer frequent violence. Bayard Rustin was a master strategist and tireless activist. Bayard Rustin is the man whose name should come to mind when we invoke the achievements of "the struggle conducted on the high plane of dignity and discipline," but he was left out because he was a faggot, "he who must not be named," branded a pervert for being so far ahead of his time for refusing to be ashamed or silent or lie about his truth.
I call upon my people, all my people today on the eve of this historic remembrance so infused with exponential potency by the nomination of Barack Obama, a Black man for president of the United States, to remember that your freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom and Bayard Rustin is the proof.
We must meet the forces of bigotry with soul force. Stop offering your gay brothers and sisters "a cup of bitterness and hatred," while you "cross that warm threshold which leads into the Palace of Justice." We will not be satisfied as long as one Black youth is abandoned for being gay.
Bayard Rustin, we will remember your commitment to nonviolence. You said: "Violence will never be anything but vile." We will teach your ideas of peaceful active resistance and celebrate your positive contribution participating in almost every major civil rights event from the 1940s to the 1970s. Your own people vilified, rejected and abandoned you and your name was often left out of our own telling of history because you had the audacity to tell the truth without shame, that you loved another man.
In your name, we will not settle for separate and unequal protection for our families and our holy unions.
Bayard Rustin, Brother Bayard, how much you have to teach us still. Teach us about courage, the courage to be true to yourself in the midst of terrible oppression. Teach us the strength that got you through 22 days on a chain gang. Teach us about nyansapo, the wisdom to solve the most complex problems and circumstances such as still face our people with a commitment to pacifism, "which means act and act with your body to make every conflict a creative conflict."
You once said, "We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers." Brother Rustin, you were that troublemaker when we needed troublemakers to move our nation from Jim Crow toward full and equal rights for all. You were brilliant, but you yourself could not lead your people to the promised land because you refused to lie about who you were: a man who loves men. And when you empowered another to lead us to the dream of a nation that lives the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal, you were too often treated as less than a man by your own people.
Brother Bayard we will carry your cross. We will not sit silently by and allow HIV to rob us of another generation of leaders. We will not allow prejudice to lock us out of the halls of justice. We will not continue to take the beat-down from hateful officers of the law.
H. Alexander Robinson is a political commentator, civil rights activist and AIDS activist, and the CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a Black gay civil rights organization based in Washington, DC.