Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin: Freedom Fighters & Friends

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James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin (Photo credit: unknown)

One man was an enigma and has been buried beneath the annals of the post-Second World War Black civil rights movement. The other man is better known, and his texts are part of the standard curriculum for secondary and post-secondary learning. One man was a consummate tactician and strategist. The other man was thoughtful, and his words were uncensored and unmitigated. Both men were involved in liberation, and black liberation in particular. Both men were born to young mothers. Both men had biological fathers who were not present in their lives. Both men were openly gay at an historical time when being so incited attacks on your body and personhood. Examining Baldwin’s and Rustin’s place in and contributions to the movement are essential to comprehending the extent to which sexual preference was subordinated to further black rights rather than gay rights, and both men understood this well.

For many persons, Bayard Rustin is an unfamiliar name, primarily because his sexual preference and unjust criminal record for “sexual deviant behavior” made him a target to discredit the civil rights movement. King and others decided that it was best for Rustin to remain within the shadows organizing rather than to be in the forefront as a spokesperson. Therefore, despite Rustin having organized the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” until scholars turned a critical gaze upon Rustin and began publishing books and articles about him beginning in 1995, Rustin’s contribution to the civil rights movement was being lost in oral history. Yet scholarship reveals that without Rustin and his long history of organizing anti-war and anti-segregation movements, King might not have taken a pacifist and non-violent stance and the 1963 March on Washington may not have occurred.

On the other hand, Baldwin is a household name to anyone interested in African American culture and history. A poignant speaker and writer, Baldwin’s contribution to the civil rights movement neither can be overlooked nor underestimated. Literary scholars regard Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room (1956) as his coming out narrative. While attacked  and discredited because of his homosexuality by Eldridge Cleaver in his infamous narrative Soul on Ice (1968), Baldwin had established himself as a vocal and consummate critic and provocateur about race relations in the United States and American imperialism abroad.  You only have to remember the impact of his text The Fire Next Time (1963) and recall how in this text Baldwin predicted the “Negro Rebellions” that would occur in 1967, 1968, and throughout the rest of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The multimedia presentation ,“Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin: Freedom Fighters & Friends” staged at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC on August 18, 2014, aims to document and present the contributions that both Rustin and Baldwin made to the civil rights movement.  Written and produced by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in association with the DC Commission on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, this performance incorporates film, dance, music, and singing. It is a sensory explosion that engages the viewer and listener.

Actors with placards

(Photo Credit: M. L. Simms-Burton)

The presentation provides a mini-history lesson to viewers who are unaware of the events that galvanized Rustin, Baldwin, King, A. Phillip Randolph, Medgar Evers, Stokeley Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and countless named and unnamed heroes and sheroes to end racial apartheid in the United States. Cynthia Brock-Smith, secretary of the District of Columbia and chair of the DC Commission on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, states that the goal of the presentation is to “educate another generation about the civil rights movement.” Through this education, Brock-Smith hopes that awareness of the power of this movement as well as the ability to organize to address grievances and incite change will mitigate the self-destructive behavior that some youths in the District of Columbia are engaging in. The goal is to make this presentation part of the public school curriculum in DC.

After the presentation, a panel discussion took place moderated by Denise Rolark-Barnes of The Washington Informer and with panelists Brock-Smith; Kevin Brown, Founder and Director of the James Baldwin Literary Society; and Mandy Carter, Co-Founder of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The questions and answers from the audience unveiled that Dr. Joyce Ladner, a scholar and civil rights activist who was on the ground and organized with Bayard Rustin for the 1963 March on Washington, was in the audience. One useful tidbit that was taken away from this event is that Baldwin, although present at the 1963 march, was not allowed to speak because the leaders were afraid of what “would come out of his mouth.” Baldwin was known for not mincing his words.

The presentation is a useful mechanism for educating people about Rustin, Baldwin, and the civil rights movement. While the film could benefit from some sound and video editing, the music, dance, and monologues were spot on, well-choreographed and delivered, and proved integral to conveying the meaning and intent of the movement. Perhaps some minor post-production tweaking will make the film portion of the multimedia presentation as polished as the other media are. Further, if the title of the presentation signals to you that the presentation will provide you with ample information about Rustin and Baldwin’s friendship, you will be disappointed.

This presentation was originally staged at the Arena Stage in DC during Black History Month this year.

Watch the entire performance of “Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin: Freedom Fighters and Friends” at the Arena Stage on YouTube.

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