Following the City of Allentown's action to re-name one block of S. Law Street, between Hamilton and Walnut, Bayard Rustin Way, Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center hosted a street re-naming ceremony. The renamed street is adjacent to Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.
The ceremony featured Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel L. Levine, Allentown Mayor Ray O'Connell, and surviving partner of the civil rights leader, Walter Naegle.
Bayard Rustin Way is the second street in Allentown named after a non-Allentown resident, the first being Martin Luther King Blvd. Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, PA and later became one of America's most important and prominent civil rights leaders.
A practitioner of non-violence, Rustin in credited with imparting this value on King for whom Rustin also served as a senior advisor. Rustin was the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, but was excluded from speaking at the march because he was openly gay. He was also a key figure in the labor movement, including his role as director of AFL-CIOs A. Philip Randolph Institute, which promoted racial integration of labor unions. In the last decade of his life, Rustin because a vocal advocate for the LGBT community, and today is considered to be an important icon for LGBT people of color.
In late 2018, Allentown City Council voted unanimously on a resolution authored by Councilmember Courtney Robinson to rename the street, an ordinance quickly signed by Mayor O'Connell.
"Bayard Rustin is exactly the type of social justice leader we as a community should hold up and educate our community about," said Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center. "He was a fierce leader in the face of incredible adversity, he was a stalwart supporter of values he believed in, and he spoke with a prophetic voice for justice for all - this street renaming is the start, not an end, of our community's recognition of Rustin's legacy."
In 2013, Central Voice interviewed Naegle on Rustin’s role in the American civil rights movement, a role kept invisible because he was openly gay. That article is republished below.
By Frank Pizzoli
Sometimes waiting at an intersection changes your life.
That's how it happened for Walter Naegle when he met Bayard Rustin, the gay icon activist and friend of Martin Luther King Jr. during the tumultuous 1960s.
"I was waiting for the light to change at a New York City intersection. We just started talking," Naegle tells Central Voice. That was 1977. They remained a couple for the next decade until Rustin's death.
Rustin was 65. Naegle was 27. Together they forged a relationship portrayed in Brother Outsider recently rescreened in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Rustin was a visionary strategist and activist called “the unknown hero” of the civil rights movement. A disciple of Gandhi, a mentor King, and the architect of the 1963 March, he dared to live as an openly gay man during the fiercely homophobic 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He was a Quaker and a pacifist. When Naegle answered the telephone he was working at NYC's Penn Service Center.
Around the time they met in 1977 Rustin was on his way back from Memphis where he was involved with furniture workers hoping to improve their conditions.
"From early on Bayard had a broad view of social justice issues. He was involved in union struggles, refugee affairs, and the overall struggle to make life better for as many people as possible," Naegle explains.
Rustin represents the crossroads of all social justice struggles – poverty, African-American civil rights, LGBT civil rights, economic justice, and the many overlaps among various constituent groups.
"I think over the years the LGBT movement has picked up some lessons from Bayard's playbook. The gay movement has learned the importance of coalitions in achieving their goals," Naegle said.
Same as the African-American civil rights movement, Naegle notes that there are different forces at work within the gay movement.
When asked about the differences and similarities between the 1960s assimilationist and separatist groups within the larger African-American civil rights movement and similar splits within today's gay movement, Naegle said, "There were references to this kind of notion in Bayard's own history."
Local historian Michael Long, Elizabethtown College, tells Central Voice that Rustin "was a brilliant organizer, a major coalition builder who saw connections between groups." Having edited Rustin's letters in "I Must resist," Long is certain that he saw "the lgbt rights issue as the natural progression following the African american civil right movement".
By the time of the 1963 March and King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, there were pressures on which positions the civil rights movement ought to support. Some leaders were opposed to the Vietnam War. Leaders with sons serving in the war supported the effort. Eventually some leaders began to doubt the effectiveness of King's nonviolent strategies to achieve their goals. Eventually the Black Panthers formed.
Similarly within the gay movement there are tensions among groups whose main emphasis has been the successful repeal of "Don't ask, Don't tell" and marriage equality and other gay activist organizations concerned with social and economic justice issues, including an end to the discrimination of LGBT employee in the workplace.
Rustin's advice to King may serve as advice to the LGBT movement.
Rustin told King when upon being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "you must speak your conscience" on a variety of social justice issues, Naegle said. "This can be difficult. Many leaders and many good people can honestly be on different sides of issues or be motivated to act by different issues." Naegle says the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force "do good work but not all the work."
There are lots of pages in a movement's playbook but not all of those reading the book on the same page.