WASHINGTON, August 29, 2013 — Looming large over the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign at the intersection of 17th and Rhode Island Avenue was a five story banner of civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin as gay and lesbian couples took commemorative photos out front.
Inside moderator Earl D. Fowlkes, Jr., President & CEO, of The Center for Black Equity hosted a riveting panel discussion of the life and works of man known as the brains behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, because as an openly gay man in the 1960s he was forced to work behind the scenes.
Before the panel convened, the guests were treated to a slice of the PBS documentary on The March on Washington that featured Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton tribute to Bayard Rustin’s tenacity and forceful personality.
Born in West Chester, PA in 1912 and raised as a Quaker by his grandparents, Rustin won a vocal scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio and later sang in a Harlem singing group with Paul Robeson before carving out a career as a strategist in the 1947 Freedom Rides that confronted the segregated interstate bus system with non-violent action.
By 1963 at the age of 51, Rustin had distinguished himself along with senior statesman of the civil rights movement, A. Phillip Randolph as a master organizer as he worked behind the scenes to create and sustain the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and dozens of diverse organizations.
Panelists Mandy Carter, National Coordinator from the National Black Justice Coalition of the Bayard Rustin Commemoration, Damien Conners, Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and MacArthur Flournoy, gay theologian and Director for Faith Partnership and Mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign discussed his legacy.
“With no disrespect to white men with money, Bayard Rustin was intentionally intersectional”, said Mandy Carter as she described the genius of Rustin’s strategy to bring a diverse coalition of white, trade unionists, religious leaders and yes radical young activists to be the face of the march.
“We are at a ‘movement moment’ and this goes back to Seneca Falls when the white suffragettes had to decide if they were going to include black women. They decided not to because it was politically expedient. The lesson we learned was to never leave anyone out”, said Carter as she rummaged through her backpack of historical documents she later shared with the audience.
The youngest member of the panel, SCLC Director Damian Conners shared his painful history of being a gay activist in Atlanta working with older Bible Belt Christian leaders with a vested sense of privilege. “We need to force people into uncomfortable spaces as we look to these leaders for a prophetic liberating theology that provides equality for everyone”, said Mr. Conners.
In his closing remarks on the legacy of the man that President Obama will posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to, Rev. MacArthur Flournoy reflected on how humbling this week of commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington has been.
“I don’t know how I got here, but by the grace of God. But if you’re not at the table, you will end up on the menu”, said the gay theologian wand father of five children - one biological son who was the product of a two year marriage that also included an adopted daughter from Africa, and three additional children with his current partner.
In her closing remarks Mandy Carter reminded the audience of the convergence of two major demographic tidal waves, the 79 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1952, the 80 million 18 to 25 year old millennials and the majority people of color that America is becoming as she described the power of the emerging diversity and reflected on Bayard Rustin’s legacy.
“Through all the madness, he got it done’.
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