Bayard Rustin, an influential but often forgotten member of the civil rights movement, was celebrated in poetry and song Wednesday night at the National Museum for Women in the Arts.
Rustin, who died in 1987, was the chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The event was a part of a months-long, national celebration of Rustin, who would have turned 100 in March.
As a civil rights activist, Rustin’s story is more complicated than most. Openly gay, he was a target of criticism from some other civil rights leaders. Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life, has dedicated the year to organizing events to help push Rustin’s story to the forefront of the civil rights narrative.
“He was a man of many identities, and so many people can relate to him,’’ Naegle said.
At Monday’s event, Rustin’s love for the arts was celebrated. Actor and slam poet Regie Cabico read an essay Rustin had written about his refusal to move to the back of a bus traveling from Louisville to Nashville. Poets Chris August and Twain Dooley performed two intersecting poems intended to show the similarities between their struggles; August, as gay and Dooley, as a black man. The event ended with a rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” sung by local singer LaKisha Knight.
“The crowd definitely reflected the vision and hard work of Bayard Rustin,” said Laura Harris, a Brookland resident who attended the event. “All colors and creeds and persuasion coming together to learn about this man, who was one of the many unsung heroes of a movement.”