Review by John D’Emilio
Bayard Rustin deserves recognition as one of the most important social justice activists in mid-twentieth century U.S. history. Long before academics began speaking about intersectionality, Rustin was arguing that issues such as racial equality, world peace, anti-colonialism, and economic security had to be seen as interconnected. Through him, pacifist organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League took on the issue of racial justice, and civil rights organizations embraced calls for an increase in the minimum wage and “freedom” budgets designed to eliminate poverty. Rustin was as responsible as anyone for putting strategies of Gandhian nonviolence at the heart of the African American freedom struggle, and he plotted and planned how the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. could be transformed from an Alabama minister into a nationally recognized figure. In the 1970s and 1980s, as national politics grew more conservative and corporate elites wielded ever more power, Rustin remained openly committed to a democratic socialist agenda designed to significantly reduce class and racial hierarchies.
Despite these decades of work and achievements, Bayard Rustin is hardly a familiar name to most Americans, although there has been a surge of interest recently. Besides being Black, a Quaker, and a leftist, Rustin was a gay man during decades when the oppression of LGBTQ people was at its most intense. Criminalized, condemned as sinful, and classified as illness, homosexuality brought more than shame and isolation. It frequently led to the loss of employment and often resulted in arrests that were publicized in the local press. Under these circumstances, most LGBTQ people remained deeply closeted or, in the phrase commonly used in the 1950s and 1960s, wore a mask. In the case of Rustin, who was arrested more than once and served time in jail for his sexual behavior, it led him to work in the background, away from public view, even when he was the key figure in an organizing campaign.
Rustin, a film directed by George C. Wolfe, produced by Michelle and Barack Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions and streaming on Netflix, does not attempt to cover the full scope of Rustin’s political views and activism. Rather, it focuses on the event that will be most familiar to a large number of Americans-–the 1963 March on Washington, for which Rustin was the key organizer and which brought 250,000 people to the nation’s capital for a day of peaceful protest. Thematically, the film highlights Rustin’s skills and directly confronts the homophobia that other Black leaders wielded against him.
Rustin begins by dramatizing a shameful moment in 1960. After student sit-ins in the South made headlines, Rustin persuaded King to lead demonstrations outside the Democratic and Republican national conventions that summer. The plan angered Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, and Adam Clayton Powell, who represented Harlem in Congress, and they threatened to go public with the claim—a complete falsehood––that King and Rustin were having a sexual affair. Rustin expected King to disregard these threats, but King backed off and dismissed Rustin as his adviser. Colman Domingo, who plays Rustin in the film, effectively portrays the heartbreaking impact that King’s break had on Rustin.
The film then jumps forward to 1963 and the March on Washington that Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, a Black labor leader, are calling for. It covers in close detail both the intense work that teams of young organizers, under Rustin’s direction, engaged in and the repeated attempts by some Black leaders to have Rustin removed from his role.
So many of those who worked with Rustin in the 1950s and 1960s recall him as charismatic, and there are many scenes where Domingo displays how compelling an organizing leader Rustin was. Some of the best moments in the film are those in the office where an interracial team of young activists listens to Rustin as he gives orders and holds out his vision. The energy and excitement are palpable. They give Rustin their full attention and then laugh and hustle about as they carry out his orders. In an era before texting, social media, and the web, this passion-driven team working under Rustin succeeded in just eight weeks to organize a national event that brought 250,000 people to the nation’s capital.
The film also emphasizes how the more mainstream African American leaders continued to place constraints on Rustin’s vision. He and Randolph had planned for a second day of protest after the March, during which activists would confront elected officials and policymakers directly. But the Kennedy administration was strongly opposed to such a plan, and leaders like Wilkins and Powell again pushed back against Rustin’s more militant approach. They also saw to it that he was excluded from a post-March gathering at the White House with the president and civil rights leaders. After the glorious success of the March, the film ends with shots of Domingo gathering the garbage left by marchers on the Mall.
For all its strengths and the honesty with which screenwriter Dustin Lance Black addresses the blatant homophobia that Rustin faced, the focus on the March on Washington leaves out so much of Rustin’s left-wing vision of radical, revolutionary change. A former Communist, he remained a member of the Socialist Party until his death. But, despite these limits to its historical vision, the Rustin script and the performances of its main actors make the film a powerful account of a critical moment in the history of the African American freedom struggle in the United States.
DSA member John D’Emilio is the author of Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and most recently, Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties.
Image credit: Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin; Netflix