Bayard Rustin: Radical Outsider

18 May

This year is the 100th anniversary of Bayard Rustin’s birth. Rustin was a civil rights activist who was involved in almost every major protest and campaign of the civil rights movement from the 1940s until his death in 1987. A stalwart strategist as well as an inspired activist, Rustin was an architect of the 1963 March on Washington, under the leadership and direction of A. Philip Randolph. Rustin is not as well-known as other leaders in the movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. As an openly gay man in America during the 1940s and 1950s through to the 1980s, he often had to step back from a position of leadership, not from a lack of ability, but due to the social and political climate of those times.

The clip above is from the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin produced by Question Why Films. The film is a multi-faceted portrait of Rustin showing his political activism and is full biographical portrait. In the film, Eleanor Norton Holmes asks, “Why did he remain in the background? Why was he an advisor to this, that, or the other great person, but never himself coming forward in the measure of his great talent?” and Brother Outsider seeks to answer those questions using archival footage and Rustin’s own words from his writings and primary source interviews.

One of these primary sources came from the Film & Media Archive at Washington University. Bayard Rustin was interviewed by Henry Hampton’s production company Blackside in 1979. This interview was conducted for an earlier two-hour version of Eyes on the Prize which later became the multi-part series originally broadcast in 1987. This interview was ultimately not used for Eyes on the Prize, but is now part of the Film & Media Archive at Washington University. The Interview with Bayard Rustin is available as a transcript online, and the parts of the filmed interview were used in the production, Brother Outsider.

In the interview with Blackside, Rustin talked about helping to plan and orchestrate the 1963 March on Washington with A. Philip Randolph,

Josephine Baker flew in from Paris. We had practically every movie star on the lot who was famous at the time: Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte. They were all there, but they were not the important people. The important people were those people who hitchhiked, who came on crutches, who came in ramshackle automobiles, who walked, because that was the mass. They were the voice. And that’s what the President of the United States and the Congress saw.

The march ended for me when we had finally made sure we had not left one piece of paper, not a cup, nothing. We had a five hundred man clean-up squad and I called…Mr. Randolph and I said, “Chief, I want you see that there is not a piece of paper or any dirt, or filth or anything left here.” And Mr. Randolph went to thank me and tears began to come down his cheeks. And at that point of course I could scarcely contain myself, but I knew that if Mr. Randolph finally was satisfied and that we were now going to get a bill that the march had proved to be a great emotional experience.

For more information on the Interview with Bayard Rustin, or any of the other interviews conducted for Eyes on the Prize, please visit the site created by Digital Library Services and the Film & Media Archive, Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series.

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