Saturday, August 10, 2013

An Honor Long Overdue

Often when we think of saints, we come to visualize the St. Luke's, the St. Michael's, maybe even the St. Mary's.   Saints are those people of ancient times who did miraculous things, or, at the very least, hung out with a miraculous guy named Jesus Christ, right?

OK, so the Episcopal Church does recognize other saints, like Friday, we recognized Herman, who brought Orthodox Christianity from Russia to Alaska (let's not talk about the Russians and their current exhibition of "christian" values concerning the LGBT community and our allies!)  But, for me, one of the saints I sing of is that of the queer African-American Quaker named Bayard Rustin.  President Obama is posthumously awarding Rustin a Presidential Medal of Freedom, probably in part due to the petition drive signed by many, including me, that asked him to bestow this highest citizen honor on the late civil rights leader.  

Rustin's life and witness are an inspiration for me.  He grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s and was raised by his maternal grandparents.  His grandmother was a Quaker; his grandfather was African Methodist Episcopal (AME).  Rustin's grandparents were also part of the NAACP and the young Bayard encountered such notables as W.E.B. DuBois in his childhood.  These encounters helped to shape Rustin's politics, and thirst for justice through non-violence.  He had an unwavering sense of his true self, including his homosexuality.  He became involved in the effort to end racial discrimination in the 1930s when he entered college.  In 1942, he was arrested just outside of Nashville for boarding a bus and taking a seat in the second row (yes, before Rosa Parks).  He was pulled from the bus and beaten, and even as the police officers were striking him, Rustin reportedly kept saying, "I'm not fighting you.  Why are you hitting me?"  Rustin was so thoroughly committed to the principal of non-violence that he went to India, and studied under the students of Mahatma Gandhi.  When he returned to the States, he had learned of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s efforts to challenge the country's racially discriminatory laws.  Rustin went to meet with King, and, according to a film about their encounter, Rustin lectured Dr. King on getting rid of his armed guards at his house and truly adopting an ethic of non-violence.   Dr. King was reluctant at first:  who wouldn't be in an age when black families faced the threat of Klansman and bombers?  But Rustin persisted, and ultimately, it was Rustin who taught Dr. King the value of non-violence in the struggle for civil rights.  

Rustin was an advocate for the working poor, and was the brains behind the famous March on Washington in 1963.  You can see him in the background behind all the more famous speakers, including Dr. King.  It was Bayard Rustin's efforts to organize the sanitary workers in Memphis that brought Dr. King to that city in April, 1968, where King was assassinated, one of the many dark moments of that tumultuous year.  

Rustin remained largely in the shadows of other figures in American civil rights history due in large part to his arrest in 1953 on a charge of homosexuality (yes, it was a crime to be gay.)  That arrest became like an albatross around his neck, not so much for him, but how others would treat him.  At one point, there was an attempt to undermine Dr. King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s by saying that King was having an affair with Rustin.  Many groups, and causes, often became "concerned" about Rustin's presence because of "the gay thing."   Rustin was all too aware of how everyone else was uncomfortable about his homosexuality.  Even the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which Rustin helped to start, forced him out because he was gay.  For Rustin, the cause of justice and equal rights was  too important to jeopardize, so he would often remove himself from the spotlight, so as to not draw attention to his gay self.  Still, by the 1970s, and the beginnings of the gay liberation movement, Rustin was among those saying that gay rights was the new civil rights struggle and he became a vocal advocate for equality.   In a speech before the New York legislature, Rustin referred to the gay community as "the New Niggers."

"Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new "niggers" are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people."

Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a ruptured appendix.   At the time, he was involved in missionary work with Haitians.   His obituary in the New York Times mentioned his partner of ten years, Walter Neagle.  

I once described Bayard Rustin as being like a mighty river.  Even when he encountered obstacles, and people attempted to push him aside, he always just kept flowing and moving and pressing forward and going around anything that stood in his way.  He was socialist at one time, but understood the need to build coalitions with like-minded groups and hence began working to put labor and the Democratic Party together as allies.  And never once did he apologize or hide that he was gay.  He didn't need to, and neither does anyone else.  This man's life and witness, to my mind, is worthy of the title "Saint."  And I mean to be like him, too.

O God, the Great Spirit who knows the struggle of humanity to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice; we give thanks for the life of Bayard Rustin and his non-violent witness to that struggle.   Give us the grace and strength to embrace his ideals, and recognize and react to injustice in the world, so that we carry forward his dream, and yours, that we all love one another and lift each other up; in your Holy Name and with all the saints we pray.  Amen.

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