Last week I was reading in Josh White: Society Blues about the vocal group, the Carolinians, that White formed around the time of Harlem Blues. I did a double-take when I read the names of the members: Josh’s brother Bill White, Carrington Lewis, Sam Gary, and Bayard Rustin.
Could this be the same Bayard Rustin who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and followed the “I Have a Dream” speech by reading a list of demands? Yes, it could, and it was; thus opened another rabbit hole within the existing one, resulting in my spending a big chunk of this morning watching a documentary about Rustin called Brother Outsider. What did I learn?
- After his stint with the Carolinians Rustin began to focus more on activism (though he continued to make music throughout his life). His relationship with Martin Luther King was, at least initially, that of an “older brother” — it was he who taught Dr. King the practical aspects of nonviolent protest.
- Because he had once been a member of the communist party and was openly gay at a time when that was not really a thing, Rustin was a favorite target of the FBI. An arrest on a morals charge crippled his career; though he remained involved in civil rights, he mostly stayed in the background.
- When he was in prison his lover at the time gave him a lute, with which he often accompanied his singing thereafter:
Later in life, Rustin alienated a lot of people by practicing realpolitik and advocating compromise and integration at a time when revolution and black power were fashionable. He took a neutral position on the Vietnam War and in the 1980s became known as a neoconservative who opposed Affirmative Action. He was a complicated guy. Brother Outsider was a pretty fascinating watch; unfortunately it is not available for streaming, but I’d be happy to pass the DVD on to anyone who wants to see it.
Next time: Back to music, and Josh White, and eventually, somehow, some way, Van Morrison again. Keep the faith.