LGBT, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to be honored at Black History Month event Wednesday

Actor and storyteller John Doyle had to look up who Bayard Rustin was when the LGBT and civil rights activist’s name was given to him. Once he read Rustin’s story, Doyle was hooked: he wanted to tell the world about this man.

“He was really on the front lines of racial equality and he was one of the first ones,” Doyle said.

Doyle said Rustin’s accomplishments included helping organize the March on Washington; turning his horrifying experience in prison into an op/ed piece in the New York Post that got the chain gang banished from North Carolina; organizing early bus boycotts and sit-ins; and advising the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a number of his activities during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Bayard was very much a student of Gandhi,” Doyle said. “Bayard had traveled to India prior to meeting Dr. King and he had actually met with a protégé of Gandhi.”

John Doyle

Doyle, who’s made Atlanta home for 25 years, does historical one-man shows in addition to his social activism and work with the city’s youth. He was elated to headline this week’s Black History Month celebration by the Harvard Alumni Club of Georgia with his play about Rustin, and said the main reason Rustin’s activism took a backseat for more than a half-century is because he was gay.

“In the play I’m going to talk about how he was a brilliant strategist … but because of his sexuality, he was pushed to the shadows and it’s so unfortunate,” Doyle said. “For me it’s one of the most unfortunate parts of our history because we don’t hear from the best and the brightest because of something as inconsequential as their sexuality.”

Most of the club only learned about Bayard Rustin last year, when the group wanted Doyle to perform his one-man play of Thurgood Marshall’s life. This year as they planned activities, they wanted to bring him back to do a different show, and Rustin was one he suggested.

“I had to look [Rustin] up because I didn’t even know who he was,” said Michelle Simpson, a Harvard Alumni Club member who helped organize the event. “Another issue in the African-American community is the oppression that gay people face within the community, so it’s like a double-edged sword when you’re gay and African-American.”

She said it’s sad Rustin’s name isn’t heard more often.

“He took the role behind the scenes so his sexuality wouldn’t destroy the movement and it’s just really unfortunate that we still don’t really know of him today, and he’s so instrumental in many of the things that we talk about; many of the things we praise that time period for,” Simpson said.

With the political climate in the state it is today, Simpson believes that learning from leaders in a similar situation is critical. She hopes the audience takes home nonviolent ways to address the issues they’re facing today and ideas to strategize actions, not just show up for the sake of it. Following the play, there will be a panel discussion and open-ended interaction, where audience members will be invited to share their experiences.

Doyle hopes Rustin’s life will fascinate his audience as it did him.

“To me, it’s a very human story. Bayard himself, like all of us, he had his faults as well as his strengths, but he was committed to the upliftment not only of blacks but of this country,” Doyle said. “He really believed that through these movements that there could be a substantive change in the way that America itself operates.”

“Behind the Scenes of Civil Rights & Gay Rights”
Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m.
PACE Academy Fine Arts Center Auditorium, 966 West Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta
$10 for Harvard Club of Georgia members, $12 general admission — purchase
Free for local high school, college and graduate students — register