Reflecting on Rustin
I placed my hand over my heart several times. I got angry. I had flashbacks of experiences in my professional and civic life when I was asked to make myself smaller or invisible. I laughed a little. I smiled. At one point I almost cried. I felt all the emotions. I was engaged from beginning to end.
It is ironic that I was sitting in a dark movie theater, but in so many ways, it was full of light. Finally on the big screen there was movie illuminating the life of Bayard Rustin and his impact as chief architect of what was one of the most important moments of the 20th century in American history: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Netflix has released the film Rustin on its streaming platform, starring the incomparable Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, and it is not to be missed. The film does a beautiful job of telling the history and Rustin’s story. The history of it being, the circumstances, politics, and planning that lead to the March. His story being, the personal tale of a great and nuanced man who was committed to being his full self in a world that shunned him sometimes because he was Black, sometimes because he was gay, and sometimes because he was both.
I didn’t learn about Rustin until I was in college. I often wonder how I would have seen myself and shown up in the world differently if I had known about him long before and knew whose proud shoulders I stood upon. Nevertheless, through this new film everyone has the opportunity to learn more about him, not just as an icon of the human rights movement, but as a human himself. Pop some popcorn, invite your friends and family over, and watch this film. Let it be a reflection and a call to action.
What follows is the text of the speech I prepared for delivery at a ceremony honoring the life of Bayard Rustin preceding an anniversary event for the 1963 March on Washington in August 2003. Twenty years later along with the film, I hope they’ll resonate with you too.
What Do You Believe?
“Peace and blessings!
“I am honored and humbled to speak to you today against the backdrop of our Nation’s Capital and most recognized symbols. We have gathered here near the Reflecting Pool to commemorate a man and a March, as well as to recommit ourselves to a movement for social, racial and economic justice, all of which fall under a much broader movement we should all be working toward, a free, healthy and just world for all that share it.
“So, near the Reflecting Pool, I pray that each of you will not leave today without taking time to reflect.
“Reflect on the life of a man whose work to end oppression in all its ugly faces stretched to every corner of the world. A man who worked diligently and tirelessly, when nights were long, and days were longer. A man who many sought to see his work die but believed in his vision and faith and kept his work alive.
“Today, let us reflect on Rustin and leave here with the intent to be more like him, so dedicated to a cause, so involved in social change, such a believer.
“For Rustin once said, “the proof that one truly believes is in action.” Take time today, and every day, and reflect on what it is that you truly believe.
“Do you believe that the battle to end oppression does not stop when you are no longer the one being oppressed?
“Do you believe that your oppression is not independent from those faced by other people?
“That heterosexism, racism, sexism, ageism and classism intersect, and must all be destroyed?
“Do you believe that as I stand here today a Black man that identifies as gay that my desire to slow the process of incarcerating black men is equally as important as the desire to speed up the process of gaining the right to marry the same sex?
“That investments must be made in empowering our youth so that they can continue to fight the good fight? This is no short war!
“Do you believe that in the movement for equality everyone should have an equal voice?
“Do you believe that though the Forum will close its doors this weekend that a need still exists, and a new window must open?
“What do you believe?
“The proof that one truly believes is in his or her actions. Believe today. Act today. Believe tomorrow. Act tomorrow. Believe for the rest of your life. Act for the rest of your life.
“I pray that we will all leave here today and reflect and be revolutionary, asking ourselves and responding in a way everyone around us can see, hear and feel—what do we truly believe.” ▼
Clarence J. Fluker is a public affairs and social impact strategist. Since 2008, he’s also been a contributing writer for Swerv, a lifestyle periodical celebrating African American LGBTQ+ culture and community. Follow him on Instagram: @Mr_CJFluker