The Civil Rights Leaders Seen in Rustin

6 minute read

Bayard Rustin contained multitudes. He molded intersecting social movements as an activist: nonviolence, civil rights, gay rights. He went to jail more than 25 times as a protestor. He once was featured on an album called Elizabethan Songs and Negro Spirituals. And he’s artfully played by Colman Domingo in the new eponymous movie Rustin, a biopic framed as a slice of life. 

“He believed in the promise of America,” Domingo says in the movie’s press notes. “He believed in the principles that were laid out and he just wanted the country to actually put them into practice.”

Rustin focuses on the months leading up to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, roughly 250,000 people strong, which paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Rustin planned the march alongside union organizer A. Philip Randolph, handling the grunt work, building a grassroots operation, and rallying young people. The film, out in select theaters on Nov. 3 and streaming on Netflix on Nov. 17, features several key figures of the civil rights movement. The march wouldn’t have snowballed without Martin Luther King, Jr., and the NAACP offered its support eventually. 

“Thirty years ago, Gandhi walked to the sea, picked up a handful of salt, and inspired a movement that brought down an empire,” Rustin says in the movie. “The time has come for us to do the same. We are going to put together the largest peaceful protest in the history of this nation.”

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin.Courtesy of Netflix

Bayard Rustin

Born in 1912, Rustin was raised by his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin. The former was a Quaker and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the latter belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and they accepted him as gay. This upbringing shaped his strong views on nonviolent protest and pacifism.

Rustin, in turn, instilled the importance of passive resistance in Martin Luther King, Jr., to whom he was an adviser and close friend. The pair first worked together in 1956 on the Montgomery bus boycott. “I think it's fair to say that Dr. King's view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott began,” Rustin said.

Four years later—after Rustin was ensconced in King’s inner circle—the two, alongside union organizer A. Philip Randolph, were organizing a march at the Democratic National Convention to protest the party’s weak stance on civil rights. Democratic congressman Adam Clayton Powell intervened, threatening to falsely accuse Rustin, who was openly gay, of having an affair with King.

Thinking he would call King’s bluff, Rustin wrote a letter of resignation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an African American civil rights organization that the two had founded together in 1957. King instead accepted the letter, pressured by other civil rights leaders. Three years after that, Rustin would reach back out to King for his support of the March on Washington, critical to the movement.

Prior to his work with King, Rustin had pioneered the movement to desegregate interstate bus travel. In 1942, outside of Nashville, he was arrested, beaten, and taken to a police station for sitting in the second row of the bus.

“It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because if I didn't I was a part of the prejudice,” Rustin told a reporter from The Washington Blade in the mid ‘80s. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the movie, civil rights activist Ella Baker (played by Audra McDonald) tells Rustin a hard truth: “On your own, you and Martin are fine. But together, you are fire.” Once King (played by Aml Ameen) agreed to help Rustin nationalize the March on Washington, the movement caught alight.

In June 1963, then-president John F. Kennedy gave an address on civil rights, which activists and organizers viewed as lukewarm and calculated. In his speech, Kennedy announced that he would send civil rights legislation to Congress. Onscreen, King points out that, in the fall, segregationists would gut the proposed bill. This, Rustin surmises, leaves them with two months to plan the march.  

The march itself secured the success of the civil rights movement and cemented King as an American hero. But it was Rustin who convinced King to join in the first place.

Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin.David Lee—Netflix

A. Philip Randolph

In 1941, in the midst of World War II, Randolph (played by Glynn Turman) called for a march to protest discrimination in the defense industry. The president at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, acquiesced to the organizers’ demands, and so the march was called off. Roosevelt issued the Fair Employment Act, an early civil rights victory that banned discrimination within war industries. In 1948, then-president Harry S. Truman would do something similar. He created Executive Order 9981, which legally ended segregation in the armed forces, in response to another march proposed by Randolph. 

Decades later, Rustin went to his mentor, Randolph, for his expertise on planning marches. When the NAACP originally said no to backing the March on Washington, Randolph advised Rustin to mend his relationship with King. And once King was on board, the NAACP followed. Rustin asked Randolph to help him garner the support of the old guard of the civil rights movement, including Roy Wilkins. When the NAACP voted to remove Rustin as the director of the march, and appointed Randolph instead, Randolph immediately made Rustin deputy director anyway.

Roy Wilkins

Wilkins (played by Chris Rock) was the NAACP Executive Secretary at the time of the March on Washington. He was opposed to Rustin because he had formerly been in the Young Communists League, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War II, and his “mannerisms and reputation” made him an easy target. This was a common throughline for civil rights leaders at the time: They thought that Rustin’s sexuality would put the movement at risk.

Beyond the scope of the movie, Wilkins held the Executive Secretary position within the NAACP from 1955 to 1963, and became Executive Director from 1964 to 1977.

Jeffrey Wright as Adam Clayton Powell.Courtesy of Netflix

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 

Democratic congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (played by Jeffrey Wright) felt similarly to Wilkins about Rustin. In 1960, it was he who called King and told him to call off the planned protest at the Democratic National Convention—or he would spread his unsavory rumor about King and Rustin to the press. Months later, he became the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Powell represented Harlem in the House of Representatives for nearly three decades, from 1945 until 1971. He became a powerful politician and something of a spokesman for civil rights issues.

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