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Labor & civil rights activist prominent in new film, Rustin

Mike Matejka
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Rustin (2023)

Screening on Netflix

1 hour, 48 minutes                  

Labor and civil rights converged in Bayard Rustin’s (1912-1987) life, a gay man raised as a Quaker who exposed Martin Luther King Jr. to non-violence and became the mobilizing force behind the famous August 1963 “March on Washington,” where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  Union leadership is portrayed as critical to the March’s success.

This biopic film portrays Rustin’s vision for the March and his persistent attempts to convince civil rights leaders that the dramatic, unprecedented, non-violent mass gathering was critical to passing federal civil rights legislation.  Flashbacks to Rustin’s early efforts, arrests and stigmatization by some civil rights leaders for his sexual orientation and youthful communist affiliation are all included.

For context, in May 1963 Birmingham, Alabama police loosed police dogs on youthful marchers, pinning them down with fire hoses.  On June 12 President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation, calling for civil rights legislation.  That night, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, 37 years old, was assassinated outside his home.

Rustin believed that a massive march was needed to complete Kennedy’s civil rights call.  In the film, traditional civil rights organizations are reluctant to participate, fearing a march is too inflammatory.   Rustin turned to Martin Luther King Jr. for support.  Rustin had assisted King in the 1954 Montgomery bus boycott, schooling the community in non-violent civil resistance. When Rustin’s sexual orientation and youthful communist participation were exposed, King shunned him.  In the film the two reunite for the march, King’s leadership critical to convincing civil rights organizations that dramatic action is needed.

Rustin’s greatest defender is Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president, A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979).  Randolph had previously proposed marches in 1941 and 1948. To curtail these mass actions, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order forbidding segregation in World War II defense work and in 1948 President Harry Truman signed an executive order desegregating the U.S. military.  With these actions, Randolph called off the planned marches.  When other leaders attack Rustin, Randolph is the sage voice that defends and shelters Rustin.

The other union official supporting Rustin is Jamaican born Cleveland Robinson (1914-1995), who led the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers District 65.  Robinson’s street smarts build critical community support for the march. Not portrayed but mentioned frequently is United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther (1907-1970).  The UAW supported the March both financially and mobilizing union members to attend.  Reuther marched in the March’s front line with Randolph and the civil rights leadership.

Rustin’s organizing energy and strategic thinking shines through the film, particularly as he mobilizes young volunteers to plan a mass national gathering with a seven week deadline.  Rustin’s sexuality is also portrayed as he follows his heart yet knows that even a quiet rendezvous with a lover could negatively expose him and destroy the March.

The film culminates with Rustin and his youthful volunteers preparing the Washington Mall as buses and trains disgorge thousands for what is now an American history milestone.  After the March the civil rights leadership is invited to the White House –- because of his background Rustin is not included.

Bayard Rustin continued his civil rights, labor and LGBTQ activism.  He founded and led the AFL-CIO’s A. Phillip Randolph Institute from 1965-1979.

Coleman Domingo effectively portrays Rustin with vulnerability and depth in the film, including his exuberant organizing style and his unabashed sexual orientation.  Glynn Turman plays Randolph as the elder sage, skillful yet direct in support of Rustin.  Ami Ameen plays Martin Luther King Jr., an unenviable role, since King’s persona is so well known, yet Ameen performs effectively.  Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground was the production company. 

Rustin is well worth a watch, showing well the persistence, vision and leadership that any organizing effort takes.  Too often sidelined Bayard Rustin comes to life in all his complexity, unashamed of his own sexuality, deeply committed to non-violence and a spirited organizer.