Remembering the Music of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Unsung Strategist, Bayard Rustin

The openly gay political strategist and singer is in the shadows of a movement he helped mastermind.
January 16, 2017, 4:52pm

The sense of self-affirmation that black children experience in this country through conventional education is criminally inadequate if not totally absent. This void isn't always fully realized while in school when you're fed the summarized accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson—a more-than-deserving bunch that too often gets pushed as the chosen few. It is usually a book you read during your first year of college, a documentary recommended by a friend, or a thread on social networks that brings you to that "Shit, I've been deprived," moment. For me, learning of the advancements blacks in this country made in the automobile industry, agriculture, politics, and more after graduating high school came with feelings of amazement and pride, but also extreme anger. I was angry at institutional powers that decided I would serve them better as a person unaware of my full capabilities. I was angry at white people with whom I associated institutional power. Above all, that anger fueled me to educate myself on as much black progress as possible so I could pass the knowledge along to my family, friends, and whoever else may listen. These revelations have persisted and will likely never end. About four years ago, I learned of what feels like one of the most critical erasures in Black American history when a friend showed me a film called Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.

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The documentary gave insight into the life of political and social activist and strategist, Bayard Rustin. He was a tall, charismatic man who, in the film, was remembered by many close to him as a person with an exceptional amount of nerve. During his fourth year at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he was expelled from the school for organizing a strike in response to the school cafeteria's subpar food. In 1942, on a bus leaving from Louisville to Nashville, Rustin refused to sit in the back and was beaten and taken to jail, 13 years before the famed Rosa Parks took similar action in Montgomery, Alabama. His Quaker values, which has a more-than 350 year stance against violence, landed him in prison for 26 months for refusing to take part in the 1944 draft. That nonviolent foundation also proved to influence the most notable facet of Martin Luther King Jr.'s political and social agenda. Before Rustin joined King's counsel, the man most-associated with turning the other cheek kept guns in his home and had armed guards protecting his family. Bayard also organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, bringing 200,000 to The District to demonstrate. This compressed list of Rustin's accomplishments are enough to wonder why his name isn't in chapters across public school curriculums. Most attribute this attempt at erasure to Bayard Rustin's living as a proud gay man in a time where his existence was viewed as perversion.

Missing out on Rustin's story feels especially criminal when the fullness of his character is explored. His work as a master political strategist and organizer cannot be fully appreciated without knowing his love for singing. At Wilberforce University, Bayard sang on the school quartet and traveled the country to perform. When he was expelled from the school and moved to Harlem, he first found work performing as a singer with the Josh White Quartet—a prominent blues singer of the 1930s and 40s who made a point to speak out against social injustices in his work. Like Rustin's speaking voice, he sang in a high, spirited tenor and took a page out of White's book by using his voice as an extension of his struggles for equality. In a short audio recording uploaded to YouTube titled "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow," a gallery of black and white photos of Rustin during protests, smiling with Martin Luther King Jr., and outside looking onward are accompanied by his delicate vibrato.

In the clip, he honors Irene Morgan, a woman who refused to give up her bus seat to a white couple in Virginia in 1944. He closes by singing, "Someday we'll all be free / When united action turns the tide / and black and white sit side by side / Oh someday we'll all be free." Hearing those stripped down vocals and emotions, coupled with photos of people raising hands in victory, simultaneously summons feelings of pride and sadness; pride because you're thankful for Rustin and everyone else who mustered up the courage to act against the denial of rights we currently enjoy as Black Americans. Sadness because the freedom that he yearns for has yet to be fully secured. Because like then, for looking the way I do, I can still be murdered by a white person and have my death go unaccounted for—over 50 years after he crooned that wish.

Two collections of less time-specific songs of Rustin's are available on iTunes titled Bayard Rustin Sings a Program of Spirituals and Elizabethan and Negro Spirituals. Both albums were originally released in the early 1950s under Fellowship Records—a label owned by Fellowship of Reconciliation where Bayard worked as a youth organizer and learned how to be a nonviolent demonstrator. The bulk of these songs give the stage to Rustin's beautiful tenor and showcase how his creative endeavors could never be separated from his political work. Between the two projects, he sings tunes titled "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Lord, I Don't Care Where You Bury My Body," and "Flow My Tears." Resurrecting these spirituals, which largely leaned on hope of better days even if they had to be met in the afterlife, and holding them up beside the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement nearly one hundred years after the abolishment of slavery magnifies the continuum that is the Black American story. These performances also highlight the vision of Rustin who, until his death in 1987, never faltered in his relentless fight for equality on all fronts, for all people. It is a true shame that because of Rustin's lifestyle, he had to spend most of his political career in the shadows, advising people who were less equipped to lead. It is a shame that we have to see a movie or find a rare piece of literature to find out that people like he or pioneers like NASA's Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson existed. But hopefully as people become more tolerable of select differences in this country and world, we will be able to hoist such people up where they should properly stand.

Photo Credit: Patrick A. Burns / Getty Images

Lawrence Burney is feeling inspired on this MLK Day. Follow him on Twitter.