[In honor of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am republishing here (with minor edits) an essay first seen in 2005 in The Docket, Case Western's law school newsletter. In honor of the holiday, I am also making a contribution to the Sex Workers Project (which I discussed in an earlier post).]
This time each year the nation pauses to contemplate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We congratulate ourselves on our nation's progress; we renew our resolve to work for equality and social justice; and, perhaps most of all, we debate just what that legacy means, and how it relates to the pressing issues of the day. Now that Dr. King, once a controversial risk-taker and an enemy of the government, has belatedly taken his place as a symbol of American freedom, we argue over what he would say about affirmative action, national security measures, the war in Iraq, and gay and lesbian rights.
It is perhaps on this last issue that our debates remain most contentious; even King's family members take public stands on opposite sides of the issue. The fallen leader's niece, Alveda King and youngest daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, recently spoke at King's grave for a demonstration denouncing same-sex marriage and any attempt to link it to King's legacy. Around the same time, Coretta Scott King, his widow and still a formidable activist, as well as his former student-activist colleague Rep. John Lewis, invoked that same legacy as vocal advocates of marriage equality. Son Martin Luther King III, meanwhile, denounced homophobia but declined to take a stand on marriage.
But perhaps more significant on this day of reflection than the fractured current positions of King's family and colleagues is the life and work of the man who masterminded the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, chronicled in the 2003 biography Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. (Randall Kennedy wrote this lengthy, critical review of the book in The Nation.)
A lifelong activist for peace and equality, Rustin organized sit-ins and even a proto-Freedom Ride against segregation as early as the mid-1940s. When he heard of the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin rushed to meet its leader, and quickly became the much-younger King's mentor and confidante. Indeed, Rustin, a devoted student of Gandhi, taught King practically everything he knew about the philosophy and strategy of nonviolent political action.
But Rustin's homosexuality, known and generally tolerated among his activist colleagues, quickly became a political liability for the blossoming civil rights movement. In that age of shame and secrecy, furtive trysts with relative strangers were the only kind of affectionate connection available to most gay men and America -- rendezvous local police were ever eager to target.
On a handful of occasions Rustin was the victim of such arrests, and foes of King et al eagerly leapt upon them to blackmail the movement. A Black moderate alarmed by King and Rustin's disruptive tactics, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell threatened to charge the two with having an affair if they went ahead with plans for a march on the 1960 Democratic convention. Outraged by the upcoming 1963 March on Washington, segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond -- whose unsteady relationship with his illegitimate Black daughter was detailed in her recent memoir -- brandished one of Rustin's arrest slips on the Senate floor, denouncing the March and the movement as the machinations of a sexual pervert. Thurmond had obtained the years-old document from FBI Director (and rumored closet case) J. Edgar Hoover.
Though King stood by Rustin in internal debates on this matter, Rustin insisted on remaining out of the limelight and, eventually, on distancing himself from King and SCLC. He largely accepted that society was not ready to accept him -- though at times he resented being singled out for his sexual liaisons while King and others in his circle were openly adulterous.
Though active for the rest of his life in campaigns against the war in Vietnam, Apartheid in South Africa, and poverty in America, and buoyed by finally finding in the late 1970s a loving life partner, Rustin's career after the March was something of an anticlimax. It was not until the 1980s that, at the urging of his partner Walter Neagle, Rustin began to advocate for gay and lesbian rights. Just a year before his death in 1987, Rustin declared that, "the barometer for social change is measured by selecting the group which is most mistreated," and that in the '80s, "the new 'niggers' are gays."
A civil rights activist long before Brown v. Board, today Rustin would recognize across America a kind of sequel to the social and political backlash that accompanied that decision and that movement's coming of age. Just as Brown and Black protests gave renewed passion to American racism even as it was in decline, so today forces in our nation mobilize with renewed fervor against gay and lesbian equality. Like Gov. George Wallace, and the young segregationist preacher Jerry Falwell, these forces are unwilling or unable to recognize that none of their temporary victories can prevent their ultimate defeat. Indeed, the campaigns against marriage equality may be a kind of long last stand in a generation-long war of attrition.
Without doubt, the struggle for gay and lesbian equality is not the same struggle, its history not the same history, as the long and continuing struggle for Black equality. Some of the most important differences stem from the changes wrought on America by the latter. But the crucial parallels, embodied in the life and work of Bayard Rustin, are clear to see, as it is that Rev. Falwell's eager apologies for his former racist stance will be echoed in the future by his colleagues today.