On MLK Day, Remembering Penn South’s Bayard Rustin | chelseanow.com

On MLK Day, Remembering Penn South’s Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister and Kathy Ross, before a 1964 demonstration. Photo: World Telegram & Sun photo by Ed Ford via Wikimedia.

Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister and Kathy Ross, before a 1964 demonstration. Photo: World Telegram & Sun photo by Ed Ford via Wikimedia.

BY COUNCILMEMBER COREY JOHNSON | On January 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we honor the legacy of the man who changed history and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. But as many Chelsea residents know — although many may not — Chelsea was home to another towering figure in the civil rights movement and a key aide to Dr. King: Bayard Rustin.

Mr. Rustin, who moved into the Penn South complex in 1962 and lived there until his passing in 1987, was among the earliest and most active leaders of the 20th century’s civil rights movement. He helped mastermind some of the most iconic actions in American history, including the 1963 March on Washington, of which he was Chief Organizer.

Rustin exemplified the term “intersectionality” long before it became common vernacular in the language of social justice. When he said, “No group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment,” he gave voice to a movement that sees everyone as equal.

Indeed, Rustin’s advocacy spanned over five decades and helped protect vulnerable people of so many different communities.

In fighting for the rights of African Americans, he stood alongside Dr. King and served as a mentor to the young activists who created groundbreaking organizations like Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. 

The US National Park Service added Bayard Rustin’s Penn South residence to its National Register of Historic Places. File photo courtesy Gay City News.

The US National Park Service added Bayard Rustin’s Penn South residence to its National Register of Historic Places. File photo courtesy Gay City News.

He bridged the gap between the Civil Rights Movement and the labor movement as a leader of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Through his work with Project South Africa, he mobilized American support for a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa, and he helped refugees in countries from Haiti to Vietnam as a missionary until the day he died. 

All of this he accomplished as an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. Arrested for “homosexual activity” in 1953 and shunned by some in the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin arguably would have received even greater recognition if not for the prejudices of the time. Regardless, Rustin soldiered on and fought tirelessly for the causes of freedom and equality. 

Later in his career, Rustin was at the front lines fighting for LGBT rights. Here in New York, he advocated forcefully for the passage of legislation that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodations. The law passed in 1986 after 15 years of fierce debate.

Bayard Rustin taught us not only to care about the members of our community, but to care about all people, regardless of any of the superficial barriers that may seem to separate us.

This past March, in recognition of his many extraordinary contributions to our city, our country, and our world, the US National Park Service added his residence in Building 7 of the Penn South Complex in Chelsea, where his longtime partner Walter Naegle still lives today, to its National Register of Historic Places.

As I look at the current political landscape in our country, I cannot help but think that we need more people like Bayard Rustin. This Martin Luther King Day, I will commit myself to following more closely in his footsteps, and I encourage all to do the same.

Councilmember Corey Johnson represents District 3 in the New York City Council, which includes the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Greenwich Village, and parts of Hudson Square and the Upper West Side. Contact his office at 212-564-7757 or by email at district3@gmail.com.

NOTE: Chelsea Now regrets an error on our part — the incorrect spelling, in our Jan. 12, 2017 print edition, of Walter Naegle’s name.