Sharing the Truth of Bayard Rustin

It is easy to become discouraged in public education. I teach kids whose "home" schools have given up on them. They have parents who are incarcerated, absent from the home, ineffective. The kids themselves are addicted to drugs, homeless, hopeless. They are gang affiliated or are gang wannabes, indoctrinated by a money/violent rap/videogame world. They wear $150 shoes, but can't afford pencils. They have a host of disabilities associated with learning and/or behavior. Absenteeism often approaches or even exceeds 50 percent. These kids have failed repeatedly, and accept failure with dead eyes and indifferent shrugs.

To commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., I wanted to avoid the "I Have a Dream" and Rosa Parks lessons that the kids already know. Teaching Tolerance highlighted "Brother Outsider," a documentary film  about Bayard Rustin. Although I did not know his name before then, I learned that he was a mentor to MLK and a disciple of Gandhi, and that he spent his full, fascinating life advocating for human rights. He rode at the front of the bus years before Rosa Parks. His series of articles related to his time on "chain gangs" ended the use of the practice in North Carolina. In 1942, he helped found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). And he was the person responsible for organizing the 1963 March on Washington, when 250,000 people assembled at the Lincoln Memorial in a peaceful demonstration to promote civil rights and economic equality.

So why has Bayard Rustin been largely ignored by history books and omitted from civil rights lessons in public school?

Bayard Rustin lived as an openly gay man. He was arrested for "sexual perversion." The FBI tapped his phone and bugged his home. He was a conscientious objector (pacifist) and served time for draft evasion. Why has history deemed him "unacceptable" as an icon?  Where did he find the courage to confront such hostility? Was it easier to be hated for being gay in a time when he was hated for being black? How did my students feel about this lack of recognition? Would they shrug off their apathy and become involved in his story?

I worried about homophobia. I teach in an alternative school setting where, unfortunately, ignorance abounds. These kids are full of anger that translates easily to self-hate and retaliatory prejudice. I teach that prejudice is born of ignorance and fear and that to confront it, we must ask questions.

I sent a letter home with my students the week before the Rustin lessons. I explained that the conversations would be moderated and controlled, but that the topics could arouse strong emotions and language. I offered an opportunity to opt out of the lessons. No one opted out.

Day 1.  I begin with a discussion about familiar names and images associated with the civil rights movement. Most students list Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. No one has heard of Bayard Rustin. I define iconic and start the documentary.

There are snickers at the first mention of the word gay. Then disbelief. This black man’s boyfriend was a white man?

Day 2. We begin with a writing activity. Students list, in two columns, ways that differences are used to exclude people: things that are visible and things that can be hidden. Skin color is obvious. Discussion encompasses the way people talk, the way they wear their clothes, poverty and intelligence. One black male insists he's putting religion in the middle, because some people wear "towels on their heads" or "dots on the forehead," but could hide their religious beliefs if they wanted to. Maybe. Being tall, being short, being poor, living in a group home, being addicted, not having a father...There is no shortage of examples, and students are defensive about being judged on these things.

Day 3.  Students ask if we are going to see more of that movie. They say, "That guy is pretty dope, even if he is gay." Making sure dope is a positive word provides my daily lesson in "street talk."

Our discussion shifts to what the music of the civil rights era reveals about the social movement and environment and how it compares to the music of today. What would Rustin say about rap music? Students admit that rap reflects poorly on their culture, but want to know what they are supposed to do about it. Their defeatist attitude is easy to deflect with Rustin's example. One person can do something! Responses to my challenge for them to tweet or post something meaningful include, "Don't let rappers raise your children" from the kid who put religious differences "in the middle" of visible and hidden.

I promise to share their suggestions through social media and challenge them to do the same with that message or one of their own.

We talk about the way things were, the way things are and where we need to go. They ask me what the world would look like if Bayard Rustin hadn't been born. We discuss prejudice as a learned response to ignorance and fear, and agree that eliminating ignorance is the way to eliminate prejudice. There is no gene for hate; it is taught and perpetuated by popular culture. I challenge the students to fight it in their own way and to believe that they can make a difference.

I left my classroom today believing that magic does happen. And in honor of the promise I made to post "Don't let rappers raise your children," I want to share the efforts these past few days of a few lost children struggling to use language that doesn't promote hate.

Pollard works with children assigned to an alternative school in North Carolina. 



Submitted by Catherine on 13 April 2013 - 5:24pm.