This article was published on March 10th, 2021
Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have just announced details on the upcoming release from their Higher Ground production company, a biopic of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Set to be directed by five-time Tony winner George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and produced by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), Rustin will depict the life of the gay, Black activist who organized the March on Washington in 1963 and mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. towards peaceful non-violent tactics.
Also on board as producers alongside the Obamas are Tonia Davis and Priya Swaminathan in conjunction with Higher Ground Productions, Bruce Cohen, and Dustin Lance Black.
The life and legacy of Bayard Rustin are a revered yet relatively unknown story for a man that devoted more than six decades of his life towards fighting for equality for civil rights and gay rights through non-violent protests. In the 1950s, Rustin met Martin Luther King, Jr. and began working with him as a strategist in 1955.
Arrested for a morals charge in 1953, Rustin was labeled a communist, draft dodger, and gay man at a time when all were considered career suicide. As a result, fellow leaders in the movement distanced themselves from Rustin and forced him to take a less visible presence. The film depicts him through his final years as he became more involved in the fight for gay rights with his partner, Walter Naegle.
Rustin, who lived his life out to his close friends and family, his religion and politics further distanced him after his arrest, with the conviction compelling him to leave the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and to leave his position as a lead organizer alongside Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The fear at the time among many working for civil rights was that Bayard’s conviction on sodomy charges would hinder progress in the movement.
Undeterred, Rustin would later serve as the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, a monumental demonstration in civil rights history that resulted in thousands of people peacefully protesting in D.C. for racial equality and justice. Senator Strom Thurmond, a fervent opponent of Rustin’s, attempted to embarrass him immediately after the march by reading his sex perversion conviction on the floor of the Senate to place it into record.
Since his death, historians have dissected Rustin’s influence on the movement, and his life has previously been chronicled in the 2003 Marc Weiss documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. In 2013, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 50 years after his organization of the March on Washington. At the time, Obama praised Rustin for his servitude, stating, “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”
In 2020, the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, also posthumously pardoned Rustin for the 1953 conviction that stained his record for the rest of his life. When a release date has been set, HomoCulture will follow-up with casting news and further updates.