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Happy Birthday, Bayard Rustin: Dan Falcone Interviews Walter Naegle, Partner of the Late Bayard Rustin

Naegle was Bayard Rustin’s partner from 1977 until Rustin’s death in 1987 and he is executor and archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate.

I interviewed Walter Naegle. Naegle was Bayard Rustin’s partner from 1977 until Rustin’s death in 1987 and he is executor and archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate. March 17, 2014 would mark the 102nd birthday of Bayard Rustin of West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Rustin organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He was born Bayard Taylor Rustin to Florence Rustin and Archie Hopkins in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 17, 1912. His grandparents Janifer, an Episcopalian minister, and Julia Rustin, a Baptist, named him after Bayard Taylor, a writer and friend of Mark Twain. Bayard never knew his day-laboring father and his mother was more like a sister to him. Rustin’s grandmother Julia and grandfather, Janifer, who raised young Bayard, were active members of early Chester County political culture, and of the NAACP. It is thought that W.E.B. DuBois visited Rustin’s boyhood home on East Miner Street through networking connections and there is evidence that Julia Rustin had influential ties within the NAACP. Rustin received intellectual, social and spiritual guidance with the help of his grandmother and became a leader in his school years as a scholar, musician, athlete, singer, performer and activist. Early in his life, Rustin showed defiance upon being refused service and seating in local restaurants and theaters. Rustin left West Chester to attend Wilberforce University and, after a brief stint back home at Cheney University, he eventually settled in New York for good. He learned in the first 18 years of his life that public places would exclude him because of his color. People today who knew Rustin remark on Rustin’s courage and audacity to speak his mind with little care for what white oppressors thought. He succeeded on the football field and was an equally feared debate team member with a British accent. Writer Debra Dickerson pointed out, “the invaluable behind-the-scenes advisor to the civil rights movement, affected an English accent, recited poetry over opponents he felled on the football field, and was homosexual.” His political worldview and sexuality pose more questions about civil rights and progressive movements as a whole. A story of particular interest developed in 2002 when a high school in Rustin’s home town drew controversy for a proposal to bear his name. Ultra conservatives and select school board members in the locality objected to the name for reasons connected to his sexual orientation, affiliation with the Young Communist League, and his objection to war.

Daniel Falcone for Truthout: Can you discuss what you know about the process of naming the newest high school in West Chester, PA after Bayard Rustin? How involved were you in the process and what were your thoughts on the entire naming controversy?

Walter Naegle: I became aware of it after it became a news story when some residents and council members objected. My basic position was that this was an issue that should be decided locally. At the same time, I made myself available to people who wanted to ask me about Bayard’s history and the facts concerning some of the charges being bandied about. I did know some people who went to testify at public hearings. I believe I had a letter published in the Daily Local News. I am happy that there was a decision to honor Bayard in this way. I am happy that it was made democratically (he would have appreciated that), and I am happy that the town is becoming more “Bayard friendly” than it seemed to be a decade ago.

Have you visited the school? How do you think Bayard Rustin would respond to the entire matter and controversy?

I have not yet visited, but I expect to be there for a program on March 17th (Bayard’s 102nd birthday). I think Bayard would be honored, and happy that the decision came about democratically.

What does it mean that a school is named after Bayard Rustin? Why was this not just an appropriate choice but an excellent choice?

I think naming a school in West Chester, PA, was a great choice. Bayard went through the school system there and was an excellent student, athlete and musician. He went on to make great contributions to the democratization of our nation. At this time, with the rise of the LGBT movement and the discussions about the intersections of race and sexuality, Bayard is a very relevant figure.

Can you comment on the complexities of Bayard Rustin’s approach to domestic politics, foreign policy and even thoughts on education. What should people know about the evolution of Bayard Rustin?

The foundation of Bayard’s approach, and what stayed with him even as his politics evolved and became more nuanced, was the fundamental belief in democracy and freedom. He believed that change should come through persuasion, negotiation, and mediation, and that tactics used to achieve change should be nonviolent – whether through protest or the ballot box. Over time, he came to realize that, while violence might sometimes be necessary to stop a larger evil, it would not solve a problem long-term – only nonviolent negotiations could do that. He believed that violence should be a last resort, not a first response as it so often is today. He evolved from being a religious pacifist, a personal pacifist, to someone with a more nuanced, political approach to problems. He believed that basic education should be free and available to all. He believed in the type of education he received in West Chester – well rounded, grounded in the humanities and sciences and one that teaches people how to reason and solve problems, not merely recite facts.

Does Bayard Rustin reflect our need to understand non-violence, race or sexual orientation? Is there an importance or way to harness on any one focus to draw more meaning from his life as it connects to the present?

I certainly think that Bayard is a good example or figure that can lead one into thinking about all of these issues, and how they may intersect. All of these are still very much with us and in the news today. I think the one that is always present is nonviolence – the use of coercion or force in human relationships is a constant – and how we can try and resist force through nonviolence, or direct a volatile situation into a nonviolent direction is always a question. Today the situation in Ukraine/Crimea/Russia involves the use of coercion and military force, yet we don’t want to see it escalate. How do we accomplish that and try to achieve a resolution that is peaceful and just?

West Chester has “liberal” elite but also with that comes a very strong business and professional class with a highly conservative ethos. Furthermore, many Republicans, like an all GOP school board, dominate the region’s special interests. Romney won Chester County in 2012 and Abraham Lincoln barely won Chester County in his day. How did the name “Rustin,” for a local school, come to be?

Again, I only became aware of it after it became a news story when some residents and council members objected, so my essential position was it was an issue to be decided locally. I made myself available to people who wanted to ask me about Bayard’s history and I did know some people who went to testify at public hearings. I am happy that the town is becoming more “Bayard friendly” than it seemed to be a decade ago. The naming committee for the newest high school in the West Chester Area School District apparently agreed that it would seek input and ideas from members of the community.

In the past year, the headlines surrounding the Obama Presidency, drone warfare, race relations with Trayvon Martin, sexual orientation and DOMA, and the anniversary commemorating The Civil Rights Movement have all seemed to touch an obvious theme that make remembering Bayard Rustin even more pertinent and relevant. Have you been busy speaking in the past year? Could you tell me about and have the issues combined to affect you on a personal level?

I made quite a few appearances in the last year, particularly during Black History Month, Gay Pride Month, around the anniversary of the [1963] March, and during the time of the Medal of Freedom. All of the subjects you mention above would have been of concern to Bayard, and they have come up during conversations during the last year. All of them share the basic theme of “how are we going to treat one another?” – with suspicion, fear, or are we going to try understanding, compassion, treating one another as equals? I don’t pretend that this is always an easy thing to do, particularly in an age when many innocents can be killed simply by the actions of a couple of violent mad men. But as Bayard said in the scene from Brother Outsider: “We are all one, and if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.” Bayard is an inspiration to me, and increasingly to more people. His continuing to work for a more just world, despite the setbacks he experienced, helped me to try and keep steady on a personal level.

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