Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was one of America’s most influential civil rights leaders—a chief organizer of the pivotal 1963 March on Washington—yet few people know his name. For his decision to live as an openly gay black man, Rustin was pushed behind the scenes. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, praising his “unshakable optimism, nerves of steel, and, most importantly, a faith that if the cause is just and people are organized, nothing can stand in our way.” Obama presented the medal to Walter Naegle, Rustin’s surviving life partner, marking the first time that honor was presented to a surviving same-sex partner.
Now Naegle has collaborated with co-authors Jacqueline Houtman and Michael Long on the YA biography Troublemaker for Justice: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington, a book designed to educate a younger generation about Rustin’s accomplishments.
“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,” says Naegle, echoing a speech made by Rustin during the heyday of the U.S. civil rights movement. “These are people who are not going to stand by and let injustice take place. They are going to bring about change through nonviolence and through love.”
Rustin is best known for his work with Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph during the 1960s, but “Troublemaker for Justice” also captures his efforts to protect the property of Japanese Americans interned during WWII, his pacifist legacy as part of an international peace movement, and his work with African anti-colonial leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe.
What would Bayard Rustin say to young people who want to join in the fight for social change today? Naegle says, “First of all, do your homework. Learn about the issues that you are fighting for so when people engage you, you can educate them. Do it in a positive and loving manner because you want to make friends; you don’t want to further alienate people. Keep your sense of humor. Try and keep yourself in the present moment and in touch with humanity and compassion. And organize.”
Naegle continues, “[Troublemaker for Justice] is a road map that they can follow. Because when you are trying to build change in a democratic society, a society that is multicultural and pluralistic, you need to win allies. You need to build a coalition.” Coalition-building was a critical practice for Rustin, who understood that progressive activists needed to cultivate a sense of shared belief in a cause among a critical mass of people through visible social action. “If you give them a plan, an organized plan for demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, any number of things, that’s an appealing prospect for most people,” says Naegle.
Naegle notes that Bayard Rustin’s roots in Quakerism led him to be forgiving and understanding, exemplified by Rustin’s willingness to work with political leaders who had previously cast him aside after finding out about his homosexuality or past political history. “Bayard knew that no one is perfect,” Naegle says. “Sooner or later people come around. Sometimes it takes longer for some than others. Through dedication and consistency, you win people over to your side.”
Troublemaker for Justice is being published with a free online teacher’s guide meant to support student engagement. “It’s a kind of book that we want to get into the schools, that we want young people to talk about,” says Naegle, who lives in New York and supports people doing research on Bayard Rustin, from high-level doctoral dissertations to middle-school students making presentations on National History Day. “I try to make myself as available as possible, because I want to ensure that Bayard’s legacy lives on,” adds Naegle.
Christopher R. Rogers is a writer and educator from Chester, Pennsylvania.