Bayard Rustin was gay. Everyone who was anyone in the Civil Rights movement knew that. He wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with. And the fact that he was a member of the Communist party for about a minute didn’t help his reputation, either.
But when some Civil Rights leaders wanted to sink Bayard’s planned march on the 1960 Democratic Convention—and perhaps Bayard Rustin with it—Bayard had an ace to play: his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr.
King, the unchallenged leader of the Civil Rights movement, knew Bayard’s value to the cause. King knew that no one was a more effective planner and organizer. If there was a showdown, Bayard knew King would back him.
Sure enough, there was a showdown—but it came with a twist. Someone threatened to drop a rumor in the press that King and Rustin weren’t just partners working for a just cause.
Bayard wasn’t worried. The rumors were ridiculous, and anyone who dug even a little bit would know they were fake. So when he walked into a meeting filled with NAACP leaders and plunked down his resignation—ostensibly given because he didn’t want to be a distraction to the cause—King would wave it away and insist that he stay.
Instead, King read the letter, turned to Bayard and said, “Thank you for your many years of service.”
And just like that, King’s right-hand man was cast into the wilderness.
For three years, Bayard watched as the Civil Rights movement found a higher gear. Violence against Blacks in the South was making the country sympathetic. President John F. Kennedy seemed at least nominally interested in Civil Rights legislation, but he could use a little encouragement to follow through. Bayard knows the time is ripe to make a statement. A big one.
Bayard wants to bring 100,000 people to Washington, D.C.
He still has plenty of friends in the Civil Rights movement, and many are ready to sign on. But Bayard still has plenty of enemies, too—and many in the movement think that such a march is doomed to fail. Even the NAACP, the biggest organization within the movement, isn’t sold on the concept.
“The march is possible without the NAACP,” a fellow organizer tells Bayard. “But not without Dr. King.”
But to bring Dr. King on board, Bayard will need to swallow his hurt, approach his old friend and convince King that the march can be a seminal moment in the movement. But to make all of those things happen, they’ll need to work together once again.
And that won’t be easy.
That march, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, did indeed happen in the summer of 1963. It attracted significantly more than 100,000 people: more like 250,000, according to the most common estimates. And it was the site where King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Bayard Rustin was a driving force in making the march a reality. Certainly, the man had plenty of flaws, which we’ll talk about in more detail below. But throughout the movie, he fuses his unwavering idealism with organizational brilliance, and he augments that with a bit of (admittedly forced) humility, too. (He talks about being willing to pick up trash if it’d help the greater cause, and he proves it.)
But Bayard’s influence goes beyond just the ability to create splashy events. Early on, the pacifist was instrumental in convincing King to embrace nonviolent protests and passive resistance (an approach inspired by Jesus Christ and Gandhi, Bayard says in the movie). In flashback, we see a young Bayard claim a seat in the front of the bus—knowing he’ll be dragged out and beaten. He loses teeth during that confrontation.
Later, when a supporter of Malcom X (who advocated violence on the drive for civil rights) threatens Bayard, Bayard literally turns his cheek to him and invites him to strike—showing the toothless gap in his smile as proof that he’s faced worse. He trains security guards in the art of nonviolent crowd control (even enlisting that Malcom X supporter, who’s now reformed, to test the guards in their non-violent resolve).
The film introduces us to other giants in the Civil Rights movement as well. And while Rustin shows plenty of divisions within the movement’s ranks, it also illustrates how many of those divisions were smoothed over or at least set aside in order to achieve a common goal. Certainly, moviegoers are invited into a behind-the-curtain look at the attention to detail and dedication required from dozens, even hundreds of unsung laborers to pull off such a massive event.
Bayard’s commitment to pacifism stems from his religious background. He says he was raised a Quaker (a sect known for, among other things, its abhorrence of violence). When he first attended a traditional Black church service, he says the experience was electrifying: Underneath all the singing and preaching and shouting, Bayard felt what he called “exalted rage.”
It’s hard to say how devout Bayard believes himself to be, but the activist seems very much at ease with the spiritual leaders of the Civil Rights movement, especially King himself. (In real life, Rustin and King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.) He’s enthralled by the works of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (whom we see singing from the stage during the march), and we learn that he sang a few spirituals for an album himself. When Bayard visits Martin Luther King’s house, he leads King’s kids in a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” And on the morning of the march, Bayard petitions God for strong attendance: “Lord, I hope and pray they come today.”
While Bayard doesn’t seem to feel any conflict between his sexuality and the faith he apparently embraces, the tension between sex and spirituality is obvious in other quarters. That’s especially true of Elias Taylor, a young married man set to inherit leadership of his father-in-law’s church (the Holy Church of Redemption). When Bayard asks Elias whether leading a church was his dream or his wife’s, Elias says, “I’ve always wanted to serve the Lord.”
But Bayard knows that Elias has same-sex leanings. And when he attends one of Elias’ services, Elias seems to offer a sermon laced with double meaning—preaching about love and freedom as he eyes Bayard in the pews.
Later, Elias’s wife calls Bayard and tells him, in so many words, that she’s aware of the affair but it must now end, because Elias must lead her father’s church. “It is time for my husband to return home to the path our Lord has ordained,” she tells him.
Bayard is attracted to men—and apparently multiple men at a time. “I’m drawn to beauty,” he admits to Tom, one of his lovers. We see the two of them hold each other, shirtless, as Bayard ponders organizing the march. And when he decides to indeed push for the march, he encourages Tom to come with him—not as his lover, but his assistant.
But once in D.C., he begins his dalliance with Elias. After the church service mentioned above, Bayard and Elias go to a gay bar, and Bayard encourages Elias to come clean with his same-sex leanings. “How can you preach salvation abut not want to save yourself?” he says. The argument eventually convinces Elias, and they begin their affair. We see the two of them kiss and touching. (We see bare chests and some embracing.)
Tom walks in on the two as they smooch at one juncture, and he stalks away, jealous. Bayard later tells Tom that he can’t commit to “love” anyone at this point in his life. Perhaps someday, Bayard adds. But that doesn’t keep him from trying to convince Elias to give up his church, abandon his pregnant wife and leave his heterosexual life behind.
A couple of Civil Rights leaders express discomfort with Bayard’s sexuality. In 1960, one such leader, U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr., threatens to leak false rumors that Bayard and King had an affair. (He tells an associate that he’s ready to deal with “King and his queen. And I don’t mean Coretta [referring to King’s wife].”) Another leader grouses that Bayard’s “mannerisms and reputation make him an easy target,” and thus an unsuitable leader for the march. (Another leader, A. Philip Randolph, skirts the problem by taking nominal control of the march himself, while dubbing Bayard his deputy—and turning over organizational control to him.)
Homosexual behavior was largely illegal at the time, by the way, and Bayard was arrested once because of it. (The film doesn’t go into details, other than showing some shadowy images, but the real Bayard Rustin was arrested for “sex perversion” in 1953 for being sexually engaged with two men in a parked car.) One Civil Rights leader threatens to point the press to that arrest record, and it is indeed ultimately exposed.
Other men are arrested at a gay bar and paraded before a barrage of newspaper photographers as they climb into police vans.
While we hear a lot about violence, we see very little of it—largely because of Bayard’s pacifist ethos. When Washington, D.C.’s, police chief tries to intimidate Bayard by rattling off all the police and national guardsmen who’ll be on hand for the march, Bayard tells him that they’ll be quite bored: The march will be completely peaceful. When a couple of partygoers get belligerent at a party, Bayard steps in and defuses the situation by offering himself as a potential punching bag.
We hear seven s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss” and “n—er.” God’s name is misused six times, five with the word “d–n.” Someone makes a crude insult invoking God’s name.
Bayard smokes, as do several other characters. Loads of people drink at a party. Bayard and Elias drink at a bar. They drink at Bayard’s apartment, too.
(When Tom points at a marijuana joint that Bayard is using, he says, “Last time I checked, that was illegal.” Bayard answers, “Last time I checked, so were we.”)
As mentioned, Bayard was once a member of the Young Communist League. And while he’s long since repudiated those communist leanings, this particular skeleton keeps popping out of Bayard’s closet when his enemies find it convenient.
It’s impossible to do justice to someone’s complexity and character in the space of a two-hour movie. And while Colman Domingo’s portrayal of Bayard Rustin has been critically praised, Rustin itself falls short of the real Rustin’s complexity.
Say what you want about the real Bayard Rustin, the guy never just embraced a position because everybody else was doing it. And consequently, he was a bundle of contradictions. Rustin was indeed a member of the Young Communist League in the late 1930s. By the late 1960s, he was a staunch anticommunist and became associated with neoconservatism. He was praised by President Ronald Reagan and given the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.
And while Rustin was certainly a lion in the Civil Rights movement, his relationship with the LGBT movement was more complex, too. According to Chicago’s Windy City Times, Rustin declined to contribute to a book called In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, saying:
“While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. … I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter. As such, it has not been a factor which has greatly influenced my role as an activist.”
Rustin, the film, however, ignores that nuance and instead uses its own fictionalized version of the man as a tool to tie the 1960s Civil Rights movement directly to the LGBT activism of today.
Certainly, the real Rustin would’ve been an advocate for equality, regardless race, sex or sexual orientation. But would the real Rustin have advocated for someone to leave his wife and vocation to pursue a gay lifestyle? Maybe, but I have my doubts.
“You think you’re just killing part of yourself,” Bayard pleads in the movie, when Elias seems determined to choose his wife and his church over Bayard. “You’re not. You’re killing all of yourself.”
As Rustin the Quaker must’ve understood on at least some level, the Christian life sometimes involves sacrifice. It sometimes asks us to deny what we might want to do in order to serve others better. In the movie, Bayard denies himself the satisfaction of violently lashing out against those who insult him. He does so not out of fear, but because he believes nonviolence is both more ethical and, ultimately, more effective, than violence. The film points to Bayard’s sacrificial nature—willing to brave violence, share credit and even pick up trash for, ultimately, the benefit of others.
Yet when Bayard sees Elias willing to make his own sort of sacrifice—to deny his same-sex leanings to care for his wife, his kids, his church, his God—the movie’s Bayard Rustin can’t understand it.
Bayard Rustin was a historically significant Civil Rights figure, a complex man with a complex legacy. But even as Rustin provokes us to grapple with this character’s complexity on some levels, the film also asks us to ignore it on others. In the end, Rustin is disinclined to muddy the LGBT agenda that the film itself wants to push.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.