Trade unionists, civil rights leaders and the LGBT community gathered at Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Theatre on Aug. 26 to pay tribute to Bayard Rustin, the master tactician who organized the 1963 March on Washington and a true visionary who helped transform moments of protest in Jim Crow America into a living, lasting movement for civil rights and economic justice.
Rustin's contributions are often overlooked in chronicles of both the 1963 march and the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century—an irony, since it was Rustin whose behind-the-scenes skills and talents helped ensure that both would not be lost to history. That oversight is now being corrected; President Obama recently chose the civil rights leader to posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Rustin's work was celebrated from the stage of the Lincoln Theatre.
AFT President Randi Weingarten and Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson joined an impressive roster of speakers to remember Rustin, the architect who put coalition-building and common cause into the lifeblood of the movement, a gifted strategist who supported a march on Washington more than two decades before the 1963 gathering on the Mall. The tribute also honored Rustin as "Brother Outsider," a man who had the courage to become one of America's first openly gay public figures, a Quaker-raised progressive who traveled to India to study Gandhi's principles of resistance, who was jailed for his conscientious objector status in the Second World War and, later, for helping to organize early freedom rides in the late 1940s.
"Bayard never did get his due during his life, and it's only fitting that he has his own tribute because of who he was and what he represents," said Weingarten. She explained that she learned about Rustin's uncanny ability to "connect the dots," to find the ties that bind disparate groups into a broad movement for human rights, economic justice and equality in all aspects of life, from her mentor, the late AFT President Sandra Feldman, who worked directly with Rustin. "The lessons he taught, she passed on to us."
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Johnson was one of those who marched in 1963 march, and she described the experience of attending the event as a young mother with a child in tow. "At the time, we weren't thinking of the march as part of history. For us, it was about responsibility and accountability. History is made by people who don't even know they're making it. Such was the case with Bayard and the leaders of the civil rights movement."
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez delivered the keynote address at the tribute and remembered how, as a college professor, he was often dismayed that so few of his students knew of this "unsung hero" in the fight for civil rights, labor rights and human rights. Along with the Medal of Freedom, the federal government will honor Rustin with a display on the walls of the Labor Department headquarters, said Perez, adding that it would be tantamount to "a failure of history" should his legacy be forgotten.
The ties run deep between the AFT and Rustin, who worked for years out of the United Federation of Teachers offices in New York City and forged a close working relationship with Albert Shanker, the late AFT president. One of Rustin's key aides, former AFT Political Director Rachelle Horowitz, was transportation coordinator for the 1963 march.
The AFT and the Albert Shanker Institute have joined with the National Black Justice Coalition to honor that legacy. At the Lincoln Theatre event, Weingarten announced that the two organizations have partnered to establish a Bayard Rustin Fellowship, which will focus on research, advocacy and public education policy that address discrimination and bullying against students, support climates of respect and tolerance in schools, and promote social diversity through the full integration of American schools.
The Lincoln Theatre tribute was moderated by Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart and presented by the AFT, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, NBJC and the Service Employees International Union. Featured speakers included SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, APRI President Clayola Brown, U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), NBJC Executive Director and CEO Sharon Lettman-Hicks, and Rustin's longtime partner, Walter Naegle. Also attending the event were the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who shared their memories of Rustin with the audience.
Norton; APRI President Emeritus Norman Hill; George Washington University history professor Eric Arnesen; and Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also were featured in a panel discussion on the Rustin legacy in the fight for justice and human rights. Segments of the documentary "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin" also were shown at the tribute; the entire film is being streamed Aug. 28-29 by "POV," the PBS documentary series. [Mike Rose]
August 28, 2013