The celebration honored an influential man often overlooked in history books, supported, in part, by the lover who never forgot him.
In the civil rights era, Bayard Rustin was known as a master strategist. He organized the March on Washington. Raised a Quaker, Rustin tutored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the use of nonviolent resistance. He was openly gay, and his life and legacy were often subject to derision.
Rustin would have turned 100 in March, and Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner when the activist died in 1987, saw the milestone as an opportunity. The same characteristics once seen as a hindrance to the movement make him one of its most fascinating characters. Now might be the time to push Rustin’s story to the forefront of American consciousness, Naegle thought.
“People are attracted to his story now because he has so many identities,” Naegle said. “And if you relate to one, you will then learn about all the great things he’s done and the struggles of that era, which is the most important thing.”
Naegle, 62, has dedicated the next two years to spreading word of Rustin’s legacy, which will take him through the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Mostly, he helps to organize programs honoring Rustin and provide historical documents for events. Twenty-five years after Rustin died, Naegle’s relationship with him has transformed from partner to historian.
Next week, he’ll be in Chicago. Later this month, Boston. But Wednesday night, he was at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the District.
The event, sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, spoke to Rustin’s artistic sensibilities.
Those who walked into the museum were serenaded with recordings of Rustin singing Negro spirituals in his dulcet baritone.
Two local poets — one black and straight, the other white and gay — recited poems reflecting on their experiences with discrimination. Another poet, Regie Cabico, read a Rustin essay, which described the activist’s arrest after he refused to sit in the back of a bus from Louisville to Nashville. None had heard of Rustin before they were asked to perform.
“I was immediately inspired by him,’’ Cabico said. “Even in his writing, there was an elegance and authority and defiance.”
Naegle introduced clips from “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” a 2003 documentary about Rustin’s life. It showed his call for “angelic troublemakers” to conduct protests. It told about how minister and New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. pushed Rustin out of King’s inner circle by threatening to spread the false rumor that he and King were having an affair.
And it showed a clip of Naegle recounting how nervous he was telling his mother: “I’m gay. He’s black. And he’s older than you.”
They met one afternoon on a Times Square street corner in 1977. Naegle was 27. Rustin was 65.
By this time, Rustin’s hair had grayed, and he was known for using a twisting wooden walking stick. Naegle, who admired the philosophy of nonviolent resistance, was fairly certain whom he was.
“But I wasn’t completely sure, because he didn’t have a walking stick,’’ Naegle said.
They fell in love quickly, and Naegle learned that Rustin was quite a Renaissance man. He loved “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. He’d relax while listening to Bach. He sang in the chorus in a Broadway production of “John Henry” starring Paul Robeson.
When Rustin died a decade later, he left Naegle as the executor of his estate. A quarter-century later, Naegle hasn’t been in a relationship as serious since.
He helped select essays for an anthology of Rustin’s essays, and a book, “I Must Resist,” is to be published this year. Naegle is also working with the National Museum of American History to include Rustin’s story in an exhibit planned for 2013 about the March on Washington.
“It all makes it feel like he’s still with me,’’ Naegle said. “He had a tremendous impact on me. I can feel his spirit when I do this work.”
Some in Wednesday’s crowd of 225 attended the march and wanted to pay tribute to a man instrumental to the process. Others came for the poetry but stayed for the history lesson.
“We never really celebrate his love for the arts, so this event was really unique,’’ Naegle said. “I think Bayard would be pleased. It would be better if he were here with me, but this is the next best thing.”