On the 28th of August, 1963, a historic non-violent protest rally marched through the streets of Washington, D.C., towards the Lincoln Memorial. This protest, attended by around 250,000 people, was against the systemic discrimination against people from the Black community, even after segregation was ruled unlawful. This march also went on to be the spot for Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. The biographical drama film Rustin sets out to tell the story behind the organization of this very protest rally, spearheaded by the titular Bayard Rustin. Although Rustin serves as a reminder of one of the most iconic events in American history and brings to light one of the heroes of the Black Freedom Movement, the film fails to be effective beyond the surface.
What is the significance of the opening sequence?
Rustin is undoubtedly a film that is focused entirely on presenting history while taking creative liberties in certain situations as well. The film goes for a very powerful beginning, with the reminder that the Supreme Court in the United States of America had ruled segregation, i.e., differentiation based on skin color, to be unlawful and unconstitutional. Yet, racism was still very aggressively embedded in American society, and three brief scenes right after this reminder, presented in words, take us back to genuinely disturbing times.
First comes the image of a young Black woman sitting without reacting while a group of rowdy white men and women pour ketchup and mustard all over her head and face. This scene resembles an incident from 1963 that took place at an eatery in Jackson, Mississippi. This eatery still had laws of segregation, not allowing Blacks to enter and sit in the same place that was reserved for white folks. Anne Moody, a civil rights activist and a student of historically Black Tougaloo College, decided to stage a silent sit-in at the eatery to protest against its segregation practices. Many of the white members, if not all, present at the place violently reacted by throwing food at the students, humiliating them, and even physically attacking one of the male activists. A photograph of the incident and the abusive treatment itself has now become a stern reminder of racism in America.
The next scene shows a young Black girl unmindfully walking on the street, wearing a school uniform and carrying with her a little schoolbag. In front and behind the girl, though, are four men wearing U.S. marshal armbands, making it evident that the girl is being escorted to school. This is a direct reference to young Ruby Bridges from New Orleans, Louisiana, who became the first Black child in the state to go to an all-white school after racial integration was officially announced by the government. Up until 1960, Black children in Louisiana had their own schools and were not allowed to attend institutions reserved only for the white population. After this supremely racist law was lifted, Ruby Bridges became the first student to attend an integrated school. There was fear that the girl would be attacked or harassed by racists, because of which the state appointed marshals to escort her to and from school. Even though integration had been legally announced, there was evidently no space for Blacks to peacefully exist in society.
The last scene is of a young Black woman walking through the streets, with groups of white women crowding her and angrily shouting at her. This is from an incident from 1957 in Arkansas that is now referred to as the Little Rock Crisis. Nine Black teenagers got themselves officially enrolled in Little Rock Central High School but were disallowed from attending classes by the school’s owner and also the erstwhile Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubas. The intention of the nine students was to get rid of the segregation laws practiced at the school, and they were faced with extreme protests by the white students. One of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, was photographed walking through the campus while being shouted at and heckled by a group of white women. The scene in Rustin refers to this very photograph, which incidentally led President Eisenhower to personally order that Black students be allowed to attend classes at the school.
Who was Bayard Rustin?
By 1960, when Rustin begins, Bayard Rustin was already an established political and social activist, quite well known among the masses for his contributions to the Black Freedom Movement. The man had already been part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement in 1955–56 when Black protestors demonstrated against the segregation laws in the public transport service in Alabama’s Montgomery. Along with many other prominent activists, the Bus Boycott movement had Martin Luther King Jr. participate in it, and Bayard Rustin had worked together with King.
The film presents a few scenes from the bus demonstration as well, as Rustin is seen getting up on the same coach as white passengers and sitting amongst them despite hearing racially prejudiced remarks all around. Very soon, two policemen board the bus and ask the man to leave, as segregation stated that Blacks needed to be on different coaches, and they start to drag Rustin down. The protagonist very clearly states that his leaving willingly will not teach the white children inside the bus, whose racial prejudices have not formed yet, that systemic racism and oppression are in practice. He is eventually brought down by the policemen and heavily beaten up, but the boycott movement was considered an overall success.
In 1960, Bayard Rustin attempted to organize a non-violent protest march for Black rights in which crowds would walk up to the National Democratic Convention. His trusted union organizer and civil rights activist associate, A. Philip Randolph reminds that this is not just against the Democrats, for they will target the Republicans as well, but rather an overall protest against American society. However, prominent Black Democrat Adam Clayton Powell Jr. takes umbrage at the fact that Rustin was organizing a protest against his party, that too, without informing him about it first. Roy Wilkins, the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), is also sternly against Rustin, for he feels the man to be too self-involved to be part of the NAACP. Very soon, Rustin’s plan for the protest rally is quashed by these two powerful men, and the protagonist puts faith in his dear friend Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin believes that his submitting an official letter of resignation from the NAACP would make King realize the intentional teaming up against him, but this plan backfires. Neither King nor any of the other members object to Rustin’s resignation, and the man officially leaves the NAACP.
How does Rustin manage to start a committee for the March on Washington?
The film skips forward to 1963 when Rustin still remains hopeful of organizing a protest march for civil rights, and this time around, his plan is to simply walk up to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. However, convincing others to participate in this demonstration or even support it is not easy, as some of the Black Movement organizations themselves have complaints and doubts about the man. This is partly because Rustin once belonged to the Communist movement in the United States of America, which the government perceived as a corrupt evil that threatened the very core of American life. Therefore, people opposing the civil rights movement would jump on the chance of labeling Rustin a communist, which would further jeopardize the equal rights movement.
Just like before, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP still objects to Rustin’s plans, as he still believes the man to be self-involved and attention-seeking. However, the protagonist does manage to have some support in the form of Philip Randolph and also from the many young volunteers who want to make the march a reality and a success towards establishing civil justice. When the NAACP, as an association, objects to the rally and removes Rustin from the director post, Randolph takes on the official post of director for the march while Rustin is made his deputy. The protagonist does not care what his post is, and he is just jubilant at the success, which ascertains that the march will take place for sure. This characteristic of Rustin remains intact throughout the film, for he does not really care much about what his individual accolades would look like and is rather more concerned about collective aspirations and rights.
Rustin got hold of an apartment space where preparations for the march would be made. Numerous volunteers collected money and gathered crowds from all over the country as the movement started gaining traction. The leaders of all the organizations fighting for the Civil Rights Movement, who were collectively known as the Big Six, started to attend meetings at the apartment along with Rustin to discuss the next steps required to be taken. By this time, the protagonist had also reconciled with King, for the two had a fallout after the events of 1960, and the man, who was by now a very popular face, had also joined the march preparations. The only last setback that Rustin had to go through was a rather personal attack made by the disgruntled Democrat politician Clayton Powell.
Why did Rustin’s personal life play a role in his struggles?
Along with the difficulty of being a Black man in 1960s America, Bayard Rustin had to face prejudice because of another side of his identity, for the man was a homosexual as well. Because of his sexual orientation, he had to face difficulties even within the Black community sometimes, for homosexuality was considered (and often still is) strictly against Christian values. The first time his plans were shut down in 1960, it was because of a rumor that Rustin had homosexual ties with Martin Luther King Jr. His orientation was frowned upon by people like Powell and Wilkins, who believed that if news about it reached the media and the masses, it would harm all the movements and organizations fighting for civil rights.
Rustin also slightly explores the man’s personal struggles in maintaining relationships, for as his young lover Tom states, the man has a habit of switching lovers and being inconsiderate to the ones he is leaving behind. Such an incident happens in the film as well, when Rustin gets romantically involved with a man named Elias while still informally being with Tom. While Rustin did not really claim himself to be heterosexual, as the man later went on to fight for gay rights as well, he could not express his sexuality freely because it was still illegal and homosexuals were persecuted.
Towards the end of the film, Powell brings up this very side of Rustin as a possible problem that the movement could face since the politician had no other points to make. Sometime in the past, Rustin had a criminal charge filed against him in Pasadena when he was caught by the police during an intimate moment with another man. Powell tries to convince the committee against Rustin because of this criminal case, but the protagonist receives public support from King and Randolph. This certainly gave Rustin more encouragement to fight for gay rights in the future.
Ultimately, the March on Washington rally was successfully carried out, and Rustin‘s ending covers this very emphatic victory. Close to 250,000 people gathered at the place where Mahalia Jackson performed and Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic speech. As a direct result of the rally and also of the Civil Rights Movement gaining prominence with time, President Kennedy called the Bix Six members to the White House, along with four other white leaders from organizations that supported equal rights. The Civil Rights Act, which eradicated racial and ethnic discrimination, was also passed in the following July of 1964. Bayard Rustin continued with his activism, and he also found love in artist activist Walter Neagle, with whom he remained together until Rustin’s passing in 1987.