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Netflix Takes on a Lion of Democracy

Netflix Takes on a Lion of Democracy

Rustin is an admirable tribute to Bayard Rustin, but fails to capture the civil rights leader’s faithfulness to the liberal democratic tradition.

Arch Puddington

During the 1970s, I had the great fortune to work as an assistant to Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who made an enormous, if undervalued, contribution to racial justice and American democracy. My association with Bayard—as a researcher for the A. Philip Randolph Institute—came a decade after the crucial years of racial protest in which Bayard played a central part as organizer, strategist, and theoretician. 

Bayard is prominently remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, the most successful example of popular protest in American history whether judged by impact, oratory, or the dignity and seriousness of its masses of participants. It is Bayard’s role in the march that is the subject of Rustin, the biopic that is currently streaming on Netflix. 

Directed by George C. Wolfe and featuring Colman Domingo in the titular role, the movie can be acknowledged as a tribute to Bayard Rustin’s courage and charisma. Rustin the biopic, however, does not come remotely close to capturing his personality, intelligence, or political integrity. 

The March on Washington was a major departure for American protest movements. Bayard, several of his aides, and A. Philip Randolph—a socialist, union leader, and man of strong convictions—were the principal figures behind the original march idea. The proposition to mobilize a hundred thousand people (in the event, some 250,000 were on hand) to assemble in the nation’s capital and demand sweeping changes in U.S. custom and law was audacious and unsettling, most notably to the Kennedy Administration, then debating how to respond to the growing demand to end Southern segregation. Administration officials fretted over every potential calamity: Would things get violent? Would speakers denounce America? Would communists infiltrate the project? 

As a gay man with a radical political history, Bayard’s role as an adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Southern protest campaigns was complicated, to say the least. This was a time when J. Edgar Hoover was hunting for evidence that the civil rights movement was influenced by communists, and homosexuals kept their private lives closeted. It would become even more complicated after Bayard agreed to serve as the organizer of a protest planned for the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Things reached a crisis when Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.—the first Black man to represent Harlem in Congress and with the soul of a demagogue—made known that if Bayard remained an adviser to King he would circulate the (preposterously false) story that Bayard and Dr. King were involved in a homosexual affair. 

Bayard came from a different background than the men who held high positions in the NAACP and those in Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His radical past was real enough. He briefly had been a member of the Young Communist League and remained a socialist (albeit of the moderate, democratic variety), and for a number of years had worked for pacifist groups. He had spent two years in federal prisons for refusing induction into the military during World War II. Prior to Dr. King’s Southern campaign, he had been beaten and sentenced to several months laboring in a North Carolina chain gang for participating in a Freedom Ride to challenge segregated interstate bus routes. Communism and pacifism were very different causes, but in their separate ways they were about as radical as you could get in America at the time. His homosexuality was a matter of public record, having been arrested on a “morals” charge in California in the early 1950s. 

Under pressure from Powell, King cut Bayard loose. 

This was a low point for Bayard and a serious lapse in moral judgment by King. But when the March on Washington was proposed, Bayard was brought back into the fold after being named chief organizer by A. Philip Randolph. Bayard remained in the key position despite Dixiecrat Senator Strom Thurmond’s graceless comments about his political past and sexuality. 

Rustin does show Bayard’s creative abilities. Thus when the question of march security emerged, Bayard went to the Black officers’ association of the New York Police Department and recruited African-American cops to serve as unarmed volunteers, while at the same time insisting to nervous federal officials that the civil rights movement did not require National Guardsmen or armed police to keep the peace. 

Rustin also highlights Bayard’s ability to inspire smart, dedicated young people to pull fifteen-hour days organizing meals, securing buses, and doing other mundane but necessary tasks to ensure a successful demonstration. A number of the staff who appear in cameo roles are based on real volunteers who had been drawn to the march out of belief in a great cause and a conviction that the march would succeed with Bayard at the helm. Many went on to careers in organized labor, journalism, and electoral politics. These highly motivated young people were attracted by Bayard’s unique combination of intellectual magnetism and political integrity. 

Rustin speaks with civil rights activists before a demonstration, 1964. (Library of Congress: World Telegram & Sun photo by Ed Ford)

Bayard’s signature physical asset was a tenor voice dominated by a British-Caribbean accent that he had fine-tuned over the years. Bayard used his powerful voice, when the occasion moved him, to inspire audiences of Black workers, Jewish professionals, and young political radicals. The movie utterly botches this aspect of Bayard’s makeup. Instead, the lead actor speaks with a lisp and can’t hold a tune. Bayard, in fact, had a rich voice and strong musical instincts that well into his sixties could fight their way through years of cigarettes to do justice to spirituals, madrigals, and folk songs. 

Mostly, people were drawn to Bayard because of his astute grasp of racial politics during a time when new theories about the next stage in the struggle were emerging almost weekly. He dispensed with the ideological miracle drugs that promised a pain-free path to equality. Instead, he patiently explained why biracial political development, with its unglamorous coalition-building and compromises, stood as the only way forward. 

His most important political insights were advanced during the mid-to-late 1960s. In a series of articles for Commentary magazine, Bayard counseled that, in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, racial progress would henceforth be achieved through political organization and not through street protest. In subsequent articles, he criticized strategies that rejected the normal processes of democracy in favor of formulas based on racial separatism, Black Power ultra-militancy, and the strategic use of violence à la the Black Panthers. 

Within the civil rights movement, Bayard had increasing occasion to voice skepticism of Dr. King’s plans. He cautioned against the decision to take the protest tactics that had worked in the South to Chicago and other northern cities. King went ahead with his Northern campaign, to unhappy results. Bayard also advised against forging an alliance with the antiwar movement, as Dr. King also proposed. Perhaps because of his relationship with organized labor, Bayard was attentive to the White working class’ deep dislike of the antiwar protestors and recognized that moving politics in a more leftist direction would enhance Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential odds. 

While Rustin skips over Bayard’s role in shaping the debate over the future of Black politics, it does place his sexuality near the center of the story. At the time of the March on Washington, Bayard was not “out” as that term is conventionally understood. He simply declined to discuss his private life when questioned by journalists or attacked by enemies. His colleagues and friends knew that he was gay. Presumably, his dignity in the face of gossip and malicious attack caused some people to rethink their attitudes about equal rights for homosexuals. But Bayard did not become publicly involved in the gay rights struggle until later in life, after he had established a stable partnership with a man and in response to the AIDS crisis. 

Unfortunately, the movie insists on dealing with Bayard’s sexuality in the 1960s from the prism of 21st-century norms. Most notable is a fictionalized relationship with a young, handsome Black man with a new wife and a promising career as pastor of a major Black church. This relationship takes place precisely as the date for the march draws near and Bayard’s days are devoted to the culminating moments of preparation. 

The movie’s writers would have us believe that in the midst of a pivotal, indeed utterly critical moment for the civil rights movement—arguably the most important event for Black America since Emancipation and a crucial moment for Bayard Rustin personally—Bayard was risking the whole enterprise in a fraught relationship with an obviously distressed young man. 

During my stint with the Randolph Institute, Bayard became increasingly interested in the struggle for global democracy. He had been involved in various anti-colonial movements during his pacifist years. By the 1970s, colonialism had collapsed practically everywhere, and in a number of newly free countries the men in power treated their people with a callous cruelty reminiscent of the old colonial system. Among the community of Black scholars and think tank commentators there was a notable refusal to denounce the crimes of Sékou Touré or Kwame Nkrumah on grounds of racial solidarity. Bayard believed that Black men and women who had been involved in America’s racial revolution had an obligation to make their voices heard when Black Africans were the victims of cruelty from Black leaders. 

And he never accepted that America had, as leftist scholars declared then and now, “nothing to say” about political crimes in the postcolonial world. Bayard’s disappointment in the United States was due to its failure to do or even say anything about the despots that held sway in what is today called the Global South, although this tendency to tolerate “our SOBs” was unraveling toward the end of his life. Bayard was also a firm critic of communist dictatorships. He was among the first prominent Americans to visit Poland after the Solidarity trade union had emerged as the principal freedom movement in the Soviet bloc, and spoke out frequently for the rights of Soviet Jews. 

At the end of World War II, after he had been released from federal incarceration for refusing the draft, Bayard faced a world that was inhospitable, to say the least, to the issues that meant the most to him. Jim Crow seemed stable in the South; there were lynchings and Black men and women were still barred from many jobs and many neighborhoods outside the South. Gay people were hounded by the authorities. Democracy was a luxury to be enjoyed in North America, Western Europe, and a few other scattered locales. 

By the time of his death in 1987, America had experienced a revolution in race relations. In some arenas, the results were disappointing; this was especially true for the wide gap in wealth between Blacks and Whites. But there were many remarkable transformations, with Blacks gaining power in American politics, entering college at record numbers, and playing an outsized role in American culture. The gay rights revolution had yet to fully materialize, but Bayard lived in an open relationship with a man and the movement that would bring down the legal prohibitions to equality was already in formation. 

Likewise, the explosion of global democracy was already under way, with constitutional rule replacing numerous dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and the collapse of the communist system and South African apartheid just several years away. Authoritarianism has subsequently reemerged as a threatening force in the world, but most of the countries that gained freedom and independence during the late 20th century remain free and independent today. 

Bayard is today remembered for his contributions to the struggle for Black equality. But it would also be proper to describe him as much as a champion of the creative use of democracy as a lion of civil rights. In his work for racial change, he was part of a circle that used every tool that the American constitution permitted to advance the cause: the vote, freedom of speech and assembly, the courts, the press. He consistently rejected those who wanted to ignore or circumvent democratic rules and procedures, not just in the United States but also those in newly independent states who insisted that “nation-building” demanded a free rein to impose policies without a political opposition or meddlesome journalists. 

Bayard Rustin was that most unusual of men who wielded democracy’s instruments to stimulate reforms in our core institutions that were nothing short of life-changing for millions of ordinary people. And, ultimately, who had gone through his own transformative experience due to the freedoms he had crucially set in motion. 

Arch Puddington is emeritus scholar at Freedom House.

Top image: Promotional image portraying actor Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in Netflix's Rustin. (Source: Netflix)

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