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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    ‘Rustin’ up for an Oscar; the real Rustin spent time in New London

    Bayard Rustin, leader of the “March on Washington” scheduled for August 28, poses in front of the National Headquarters at 170 West 130th St., in New York, August 1, 1963. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

    Bayard Rustin was a vital part of the civil rights movement and was a powerful force in creating the renowned March on Washington in 1963.

    Yet Rustin — an out gay man at a time when that was taboo — has tended to remain a background figure in the history of that era.

    The movie “Rustin,” starring Oscar-nominated Colman Domingo in the title role, has changed that. It has brought his story and his great influence to the fore.

    Another thing about Bayard Rustin: He spent time in New London and the area.

    His visits here aren’t mentioned in the movie, but they were significant nonetheless.

    Rustin was a co-founder of the Committee for Non-Violent Action, which had an office in New London, and he headed up a civil-rights conference at Connecticut College in New London.

    Lonnie Braxton, who is retired from a career in law that culminated in his being senior assistant state’s attorney for juvenile matters in New London, is a history buff and knew about Rustin. He thought Rustin “was such a giant.” But he learned more when asked to talk about Rustin before a recent screening of “Rustin” at the Garde Arts Center.

    “As I started to do the research, I was amazed, astounded, excited — all the emotions that you could possibly think about, I had in researching his life,” he said.

    Braxton said that some people will see Rustin’s name and think of the civil rights movement, “but I think that if we really take a look and do the research ourselves, we will find that Rustin was our Gandhi. The reason I say that is because he wanted human rights, not for just people of color, not for just gay people, for everybody. He didn’t just stand on the high moral ground; he paid for it.”

    Civil-rights conference at Conn

    Rustin was in New London in 1963 for a student-organized conference on civil rights. It was held at Conn College and was the first conference of its kind held in the Northeast on any college campus, Braxton said.

    The three-day event began on Dec. 6 — just a little over three months after the historic March on Washington that Rustin was integral in organizing.

    The conference was intercollegiate, featuring more than 90 delegates representing more than 20 colleges and universities. Rustin was the keynote speaker at the 8 p.m. opening night program in Palmer Auditorium. He later helmed a session on nonviolence.

    The conference featured an array of other renowned figures including Wyatt Tee Walker, who was chief of staff for Martin Luther King Jr. and had coordinated Freedom Rides in 1961, and attorney and civil rights activist William Kunstler.

    Non-violent action

    Rustin was a regular visitor to the New London office for the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), which was located on North Bank Street (in the area of what is now Atlantic Street), Braxton said.

    Joanne Sheehan, who is chair of board at the Voluntown Peace Trust, said that Rustin came to southeastern Connecticut as one of the co-founders of CNVA. He arrived around the time the Polaris Action, a protest against nuclear-armed submarines, started in 1960. Hundreds of activists flocked here for this effort sponsored by CNVA and devised primarily by peace activist Bradford Lyttle.

    CNVA members protested in front of Electric Boat, where the subs were being built, and actually entered the EB property and were arrested, Braxton said.

    Eventually, CNVA members worked to make the group’s efforts year year-round instead of just summer actions. The CNVA bought what a farm in Voluntown in 1962 and established their local base on what they dubbed the Voluntown Peace Trust. Rustin visited Voluntown, and that center for non-violent change and sustainable living remains today.

    Meeting Rustin

    Sheehan met Rustin decades ago, when they and Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, were all at a War Resisters International Conference in India in 1985. She then ran into Rustin and Naegle outside the Taj Mahal, where Rustin raised his cane in greeting.

    By that point, she had heard a great deal about Rustin from the people he had worked with and mentored.

    “I was aware that people considered him a brilliant strategist and a strong promoter of nonviolent action in both the civil rights and disarmament movements,” she said.

    She is still in touch with Naegle, who has worked to carry on Rustin’s legacy.

    “I find now particularly people in the Black Lives Matter movement and the queer movement are much more aware of (Rustin), and, because of the movie, I think there’s just more of a discussion about particularly his work in those areas,” Sheehan said.

    The movie “Rustin” focuses on the March on Washington and its organization. But, Sheehan said, “It doesn’t talk about the amazing breadth of the work that Bayard did far beyond that. I mean, Bayard was involved in the nonviolence movement from the 1940s and was active in a group called the Harlem Ashram, which in New York was one of the groups that was really developing the use of nonviolent action and nonviolent training in this country geared toward desegregation. Bayard was also a pacificist and spent World War II in prison for refusing to kill.”

    Sheehan said that, when she moved to New York in the 1970s, she heard stories of what a phenomenal person Rustin was.

    “He was so skilled in so many areas. I mean, bringing nonviolence to the civil rights movement, working down south with Martin Luther King Jr., bringing that commitment to nonviolence and nonviolence training pledge to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was 1954,” she said.

    Throughout his life (he died in 1987), Rustin showed a keen interest in the work being done by young activists, too, including the efforts of young white resisters to apartheid in South Africa who had organized the End Conscription Campaign.

    As a person, Rustin made quite an impression. Sheehan said he had a big personality and was very charismatic. He had a distinctive, almost British accent. He loved the finer things in life but worked very comfortably with people who had nothing. He was a rare person who could not only develop a vision but could also execute it.

    Inaccuracies in the film

    Sheehan has an issue with certain aspects of the movie “Rustin,” though. She said that Rustin worked for the War Resisters League (WRL) from 1953 to 1965, and he was neither fired nor left in 1963; the movie, though, states otherwise repeatedly.

    “It seemed to be created to give an opportunity to say that Bayard was degraded by both WRL and the Black leaders who made fun of him for working at WRL, the only place a homosexual could get a job. When Bayard left WRL staff, it was to give more attention to civil rights work,” Sheehan said.

    ‘Shining meteor’

    Braxton credits Rustin’s grandmother, who raised him, with setting him on his course, in part by teaching him the tenets of her Quaker religion.

    “She taught him the foundations of what being a Quaker was and believing in peace, brotherhood and love,” he said.

    When he told her he was attracted to men, not women, she responded that he should do what he has to do.

    “She could have at that moment changed the trajectory of not only him but America because he, from that kind of freedom, being allowed to be who you are without restraints, he never hid. He always stood out in plain sight,” Braxton said.

    Braxton said that people like Rustin are like “shining meteors that only come across the sky once in a millennium.”

    He added, “He didn’t ask you to do anything he would not do, and he didn’t ask you to jump and follow because he was doing something. He set an example without the expectation that anything was going to happen other than he was going to stand up for right.”

    Braxton didn’t meet Rustin but noted that the people who did will all be gone in a decade or so.

    “So how long will it take before his name is no longer repeated? If we want to do him justice, let us repeat his name,” he said.

    He hopes this will prompt more research not only about Rustin but also about his connection to New London.

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