Whose black history? Educator limns untold story.
SUTTON - During Black History Month, W.E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass are among the people commonly discussed in classrooms across the country and at other events.
But, not many people are aware of the contributions of some African-American history-makers because they may not fit the stereotypical definition of "blackness."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, during which the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. But, that historic march to promote civil rights and economic equality may not have happened had it not been for Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African-American who was a close adviser to Dr. King, as well as the principal organizer of that march and an advocate of human rights around the world.
Joyce D. McNickles, a social justice and diversity educator and consultant, hopes to bring the accomplishments of Mr. Rustin and some other notable African-Americans to the forefront in her presentation: "Whose Black History? Are We Telling the Whole Story?" at the Black History Month opening celebration from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Suffolk University in Boston.
She will discuss how critical aspects of some black history-makers' identities, such as sexual orientation, disabilities and gender, have been ignored or minimized when discussing their contributions. Some African-Americans have been overlooked, or pushed to the back of the bus, so to speak, when it comes to making their contributions known. Ms. McNickles will encourage audience members to think about their different identities and decide which should be acknowledged when others talk about their achievements.
Ms. McNickles, a Worcester native, is author of numerous African-American-related publications and papers, including: "Why Heterosexual African Americans Should Support Same-Sex Marriage," and "Do African Americans Still Experience Racism?"
Her latest, "We Have an African American President: How Could Racism Still Be a Major Problem?" was published in 2011 by Prentice Hall, as part of a textbook on understanding diversity.
She said it was only a few years ago that she learned of Bayard Rustin. If he had been heterosexual, people would have known of him decades ago because of his extraordinary work for civil and human rights, she said.
"The idea is, we do kind of have this agreed-upon definition of what blackness is. It's your racial identity. But, we all know if you don't fit that norm of blackness, you're not going to be recognized in the same way as other black people are recognized," Ms. McNickles said during an interview in her home last week. "Bayard Rustin fits the criteria of someone to be celebrated, but he's openly gay. That has to be the reason why he hasn't taken his rightful place in black history alongside the similarly accomplished black figures from the civil rights movement."
Mr. Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Penn. His grandmother raised him as a Quaker, a religion that advocates equality and justice for all, and emphasizes peace and nonviolence. It was this lifelong trait of Mr. Rustin that stood out most to Martin Luther King Jr. and other early high-powered civil rights leaders.
In the 1930s, after his education at Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College and City College of New York, he began his civil rights activism with several pacifist organizations that advocated racial integration and justice for all. As a promoter of nonviolence, Mr. Rustin was a conscientious objector and refused to sign up for the draft in 1944. That resulted in a two-year prison stint, during which he continued his mission by advocating for integrated common areas and better living conditions for all inmates.
After his release in 1947, he became one of the original African-American freedom riders through several Southern states. This bold move, which led to the arrest of Mr. Rustin and his group, paved the way for the more popular freedom riders in the 1960s. The following year, he visited India to deepen his understanding and use of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent techniques of protesting against injustices.
In 1953, Mr. Rustin was shamed and his work was suspended after he was arrested for having sex with two men in a car in a public place while on assignment in California with a civil rights group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Two years later, Martin Luther King Jr., then only 25 years old, sought out Mr. Rustin's advice in conducting a mass nonviolent protest during the early stages of the Montgomery bus boycott, which was triggered by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger.
But, when news of his arrest for lewd vagrancy in California spread across the country, Mr. Rustin chose to separate himself from the boycott rather than jeopardize its success. During the next couple of years, he traveled to Europe and Africa to lead nonviolent protests.
In 1963, while the March on Washington was conceived, Mr. King and other planners called on Mr. Rustin, known for being a keen strategist, coalition builder and peacemaker, to organize what would become one of the most memorable and successful events of the whole civil rights movement. Some powerful white segregationists tried to sabotage the march by calling Mr. Rustin a homosexual, communist and draft evader, but it didn't work.
After the march, Mr. Rustin continued his work toward civil rights and also took on the cause of fighting for gay rights. In 1968, after Mr. King's assassination, he organized the memorial march in his memory.
Ms. McNickles said that according to a book by Michael Long, "I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life in Letters," in 1986, just six months before Mr. Rustin's death, more than 600 people turned out at a dinner and dance at the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, which Mr. Rustin headed.
At the event, Vernon Jordan, former president of the National Urban League, called Mr. Rustin "the consummate adviser to the entire civil rights leadership."
"...When the leadership and the movement were on the horns of a dilemma facing imminent defeat, our spirits low, our heads bowed, not knowing what next or which way to turn, it was Bayard Rustin's quiet eloquence, his inspiring words, his deep faith, his bright optimism that lifted our hearts, expanded our minds, inspired us, renewed us, reinvigorated us to move to another mountain. Bayard Rustin is not only one with us, but he goes with us, stands by us, and props us up on every leaning side," Mr. Jordan said.
More information about Mr. Rustin can be found at rustin.org. The website also gives information about the documentary "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin," which airs at 8 tonight on the WGBH World channel.
ART: PHOTOS; CHARTS
CUTLINE: (1) Joyce D. McNickles with a slide presentation of "Whose Black History? Are We Telling the Whole Story?," which she will give at the Black History Month opening celebration from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Suffolk University in Boston. (2) Ms. McNickles with a quilt made by her great aunt, Burnelle Smith. Ms. McNickles compares the quilt to the layered existence that she says many blacks live. (CHART 1) Black History Month events (CHART 2) Bayard Rustin
PHOTOG: (PHOTOS) T&G Staff Photos/BETTY JENEWIN (CHART 2) T&G Staff