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Rainbow Center presents a documentary on legendary queer civil rights activist

By Loumarie Rodriguez
On January 21, 2013

In honor of the upcoming Black History Month, the Rainbow Center presented a documentary on Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist who was lost in the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr because of his sexual orientation.
The documentary followed the life of Bayard Rustin and how he came to be a civil rights activist that promoted nonviolent action because of his Quaker background. Known as a powerful speaker for 60 years, he was active in multiple causes such as the civil rights movement, gay rights and even socialism. Despite his powerful personality and public speeches he always remained in the background of history books according to the documentary 'Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.'
Fleurette King, the executive director of the Rainbow Center, said she researched Rustin while in graduate school after seeing multiple references to him in history books which led her to look more into Rustin and his extended career in activism. She led the post-documentary discussion about Rustin and the small group of students shared their views on the film. In the documentary, Rustin never actually out right said he was gay, however he had multiple relationships with men. Despite the repressive times, he never hid his sexuality and was very open about the fact he enjoyed being with men.
During his years of activism, he did a bus sit-in years before Rosa Parks became famous for her refusal to give up her seat, although his peaceful protest was never acknowledged. During World War II, he urged other men to burn their draft cards in the belief that the war was wrong and was sent to jail for three years. In 1947, he led a Journey of Reconciliation which would years later inspire the 1961 Freedom Riders. During the journey the bus was stopped and Rustin was arrested for sharing a seat with a white man in North Carolina where he was sent to the chain gang for just over 20 days. Rustin later returned to New York and wrote a piece about his experiences on chain gang which led to North Carolina stopping the practice.
Despite all of his accomplishments, the documentary highlighted the fact that his sexuality caused a lot of trouble for him which led to his dismissal from the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The fellowship was in charge of religious non violent organizations that Rustin was deeply involved with. But group members felt Rustin's sexuality was threatening the fight for civil rights. Even Martin Luther King Jr. dismissed Rustin for a period of time because of a threat from a local politician to publicize a non-existent affair between King and Rustin.
Although King did eventually allow him back as an adviser, Rustin still remained in the shadows of history. He made a powerful speech before King gave his 'I have a dream' speech, though many video clips of Rustin's speech never aired.
Students continued to say that they were surprised by the fact that he was so open with his sexual orientation during the time period. Student also asked questions about current LGBT issues.
"I think it (the documentary) is important for black history month," said Sierra KaiKai, a 6th-semester economics major. "I wanted to find out about different people to talk about at an upcoming cultural event and I read about this on the daily digest. I thought it was interesting so that is what drew me in to come."

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