The Man Behind the Architect of a Movement: Walter Naegle has devoted much of his adult life to the legacy of Bayard Rustin

September 7, 2018

By D.A. Steward

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Bayard Rustin. Rustin is a name that should be known to most, but sadly he’s still not quite the household name he deserves, but one man has dedicated the last three decades of his life to changing this.

Walter Naegle, a 68-year-old activist, bona fide Quaker and photographer residing in New York City, was the love of Bayard Rustin’s life up until his death in 1987. And Bayard Rustin was, quite literally, the openly gay mastermind behind the infamous 1964 March on Washington, who, soon after, was erased from the history books for living authentically.

Naegle is the executor of Rustin’s estate and director of the Bayard Rustin Fund. For many years he’s been diligently organizing and traveling across the world to promote Rustin’s messages of non-violent activism and resistance.

The fruits of Naegle’s labor are being realized now more than ever. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom in 2013 and the short documentary “Bayard & Me,” featuring the story of Naegle and Rustin’s relationship, recently went viral in 2017. And this week Naegle will be in Ohio representing the estate at “Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream,” an oratorio written by Cincinnati Men’s Chorus Artistic Director Steve Milloy.

In advance of his arrival in Columbus, Naegle spoke with local writer, speaker and activist Dwayne Steward by phone, from the home he shared with Rustin in New York City, about Rustin’s fascinating legacy.

Bayard is often thought of as someone who was erased from history. Did Bayard feel that he wasn’t being acknowledged for his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement when he was alive? How have you felt about the country’s re-discovery of his legacy?

I don’t think he did, or if he did it’s not something he talked about. He did get a lot of recognition and credit from people in the various movements that he worked in. He received multiple honorary degrees and many awards over the last 25 years of his life. I think he certainly felt acknowledged. He was never a household name, but I don’t he really cared about that particularly. Bayard is getting a lot of posthumous recognition and a lot of the credit to that goes to the LGBT community. They’ve really been the leaders in lifting up his legacy most recently.

It was indeed a major moment for many black LGBTQ people in America when Rustin was awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. What was that experience like for you meeting the President and what was the significance of that moment for you accepting the award on his behalf as his partner?

It was a great honor. I certainly appreciated the President talking honestly and openly about who Bayard was. And why he felt he had been overlooked for so many years. That was the fact that he was gay. Both he and his wife said to me they wouldn’t be where they were without people like Bayard.

And it’s certainly true. He wasn’t the only one of course, but he was someone I think they identified with more so then some of the mainstream Civil Rights Leaders, because he was a little more radical and on the edge a little more of an outsider, it was more along their own political philosophies and ideas. It was very moving. It was a tremendous honor. I was one of two LGBT partners that day who were there accepting on behalf of their partners. Sally Ride’s partner was the other one.

Also Gloria Steinem was there. She spoke to me about how much she appreciated Bayard’s contribution and how supportive he had been of the women’s movement and of her work. [Reverend Dr. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian], who was a longtime activist in the movement, was also there and getting an award himself. It was really a nice group of people to just be in their company. It was really a good day to be there.

What are all the current efforts you’re involved with to honor Bayard Rustin’s memory and his contributions to The Civil Rights Movement?

We still do quite a few Q&A’s around the showings of the film “Brother Outsider.” A young person who wrote one of his biographies, “Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist” is going to be reissued next year by City Lights Press publishing house. The title is being changed, which hasn’t been decided yet. It did quite well, but with a large publishing house with a larger PR arm, it will hopefully get more copies out there and get it into schools and places like that.

I’m currently talking to a couple of different people about a docu-drama, a Hollywood film based on Bayard’s life. There’s been some interest for several years, but now suddenly there’s three different parties who are interested in doing something. So I’m currently in conversation with them. And recently just on June 28, there was a plaque unveiled in front of the building here where I live, which is where he lived, that is about him. The building was put on the National Historic Register a few years ago because it was the building where he lived. So the board voted to have a plaque put up in his honor.

Last year marked 30 years since Bayard Rustin’s death and you have dedicated much of your life since then honoring his name. What made you want to stand up in this way and why do you keep standing up and representing Bayard Rustin’s legacy?

I cared for him. I loved him very much. I felt he needed to get more recognition than he had during his lifetime. But more important, it was really the values that he stood for and the values that we shared and we believed in. We (and by “we” I mean the people that support the fund) felt that we wanted to promote those values. Bayard in some ways drew up the blueprint on how you make social change in a democracy. How you organize and how you get out there nonviolently and protest and demonstrate and sometimes get arrested and sometimes organize to get out the vote and get involved politically.

Those are things, epically now, that need to continue and need to be done. That was his real legacy. Drawing up the blueprint to how you disrupt the society in a positive way and wake people up. It still needs to be done. It’s never a struggle that’s over. There are quite a number of the young activists now, especially who are part of the Black Lives Matter Movement credit Bayard as an inspiration. That’s enough motivation for me to carry it on.

What do you think Bayard Rustin would think of the current political climate and the rise of President Donald Trump?

I think he would be outraged, discouraged and depressed, for about five minutes and then he would get out there and organize and work to combat the bigotry and hatred that’s been given license by the current President. They encourage people and it lets them know that you can say and do these outrageous things and you won’t be punished for it. It’s embolden people to come out more publically with their bigotry and hatred. But especially now I think he would be doing whatever he could to make sure we have a big turnout in November and do whatever he could to try to turn this around.

What is something about Bayard that most people don’t know?

The way he carried himself day to day. The news footage of him showed him as somewhat of a militant, very demanding and outspoken. But if you knew him he was very warm and loving and had a wonderful sense of humor. He very comfortable in his own skin. Very at home in the world. He was not someone who was insecure or defensive at all about how he was.

What do you want people to remember most about Bayard Rustin when they’re honoring him or thinking about his legacy?

That he was a person of integrity that he was authentic. He believed that all of us should do our best to be our authentic selves and we shouldn’t have to hide our identities. We don’t all have the same talents, but we can all make a contribution to the greater good. We can’t all be Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin or A. Phillip Randolph, but we can play some role in creating a better world. He overcame a lot of obstacles that were thrown in his path. His being gay was constantly thrown in his path to silence him. But he would always persevere.

Originally printed in PRIZM magazine September 7, 2018


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