At Silent Meeting this week, 9th graders had the honor and privilege of meeting with Walter Naegle–artist, activist, and partner of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, one of the most fascinating figures in Quaker history. Bayard Rustin was a close ally and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a giant in the civil rights, labor, and LGBTQ+ rights movements. He brought the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence to Dr. King, and served as chief executive of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin attended Brooklyn Friends Meeting, and was present for the founding of MMFS when it began in the basement of the Brooklyn Friends Meeting House in 1984. 9th graders have been studying Rustin’s life and legacy in John Keenan’s Quaker History & Practice class.
As an openly gay man, Rustin had a particular vantage point from which to view midcentury activism movements, as well as a particular set of challenges. Many regard him as an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, since he was often required to work in the background due to his sexuality.
Bayard Rustin died in 1987, and Naegle has dedicated much of his life since then to sharing his legacy. Naegle remains active in equal rights initiatives, specifically around global LGBTQ+ advocacy.
The students had many questions for Naegle. Some were curious to learn more about Rustin’s musical life. (He was also a talented vocalist who worked as a back-up singer and even did a stint on Broadway!) But mostly they wanted to hear more about his social justice work, particularly in regard to his LGBTQ+ activism, and how his sexuality affected his work with Martin Luther King, Jr. Naegle acknowledged that being gay forced Rustin to remain in the background of the civil rights movement, but at the time he accepted this. “As a Quaker, he believed in being of service, and didn’t need to be in the spotlight.”
One student asked if Rustin was ever afraid. Naegle shared that he was sometimes afraid, but that he believed in courage. “Courage is the ability to overcome fear,” he explained. “Even when he was afraid, he was committed to standing up for what he believed in.”
When asked about his memories of Rustin, Naegle recalled, “Bayard was a free, liberated, intelligent, and talented person. He maintained a deep connection to his inner child. He was funny, relaxed, and comfortable. He was as comfortable at the White House as he was in a refugee camp. He was really an inspiring person. He had a deep spiritual and emotional connection with humanity, and that, I would say, is my fondest memory of him.”
Students also wanted to know about Naegle himself. He said that he is committed to maintaining Rustin’s legacy—his values, his belief in nonviolence, and his work to build and broaden democracy. Rustin’s ideas and work are still relevant today, and Naegle is committed to encouraging others to join the work and oppose injustice.
When asked what they could do to continue Rustin’s legacy, Naegle encouraged the students to learn history and get involved. “Get to know yourself and what you think you can contribute. Don’t be too afraid to get out there and participate.”