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My history hero: playwright and film director George C Wolfe chooses Bayard Rustin

In profile

Bayard Rustin was a key figure in the civil rights movement, usually working behind the scenes. A pacifist from a Quaker background, he advocated non-violent resistance. In the context of the decades he lived through, he was unusual in being a public figure who acknowledged his homosexuality and, in the 1980s, he leant his voice to the gay rights movement.

When did you first hear about Bayard Rustin?

I probably first heard about Bayard in college. Then, around 2008, I became involved in the creation of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights museum in Atlanta. In my research about the civil rights movement, I became really aware of Bayard and how ferocious his commitment was. During the Second World War, for example, he tried to reform prisons when he was incarcerated as a conscientious objector.

What kind of man was he?

He was an astonishing teacher. He felt a sense of responsibility to teach the next generation the skill set that is necessary to bring about change. That involves details, thinking an idea through thoroughly. He taught people to dig deeper, to be smarter and better, and keep doing that over and over until the idea to which you are committed has the most evolved series of answers, solutions and possibilities.

What made Rustin a hero?

His sense of commitment. He was a freedom rider on segregated buses in the 1940s [on the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, in which activists rode on interstate buses in the south]. He just kept on standing up to and existing in defiance of any system that seemed unjust. He was a Quaker, whereas many people in the civil rights movement came from the Southern Baptist Church, so they were [about], and I don’t mean this in any derogatory way, performance. Bayard was totally comfortable being a behind-the-scenes man.

What was his finest hour?

It was the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With a group of kids in their late teens and 20s, he staged what was the largest-ever peaceful protest. He did it all. He trained Guardians, members of a New York black policemen fraternal organisation, on how to create a peaceful atmosphere. He figured out every single detail: the porta-potties, the water fountains, telephone lines for reporters in the middle of the Washington Mall. It was a miraculous event.

Do you see any parallels between his life and yours?

I feel incredible responsibility to empower people, so that they can be as strong and as defiant as they possibly can. I am not fazed by people and their power. If I believe something is wrong, I will point it out.

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What would you ask him if you met him?

He was raised by his grandmother. His mother was very young when she became pregnant with him. It’s very clear what impact his grandmother had on him in his formative years and his political commitment. I’d be curious to know what connection he had with his birth mother and what impact she had, if any, on him.

George C Wolfe is a Tony Award-winning playwright and director who has served as chief creative officer of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Rustin, his biopic of Bayard Rustin, is available to stream on Netflix

This article was first published in the February 2024 issue of BBC History Magazine

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