West Chester University held the 18th annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring guest speaker Dr. Adam Green, who spoke about the powerful working relationship between Martin Luther King and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, last Wednesday.Bayard Rustin, who was born in West Chester, is often hailed as an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. He acted as a mentor for Martin Luther King in the early years of the movement, in-fluencing his ideas about non-violent, direct action and organizing numerous events and protests, including the famous March on Washington in 1963. Green characterized their relationship, however, as “punctuated by difference as well as similarity, by betrayal as well as solidarity.”
He spoke about the controversy within the movement surrounding Rustin?s homosexuality, as well as his early affiliations with the communist party, a controversy that divided King and Rustin at one time. Green said that it is important to recognize the lessons in history and that important people can get cast aside even in movements of social change.
“We have to think about the ways in which we keep up barriers that keeps us from recognizing genius and maybe keep us from recognizing our own genius,” he said. “The relationship they had, which was fundamental and full of purpose, was not perfect.”
Green spoke about the civil rights movement in general and said that the lesson for contemporary activists lies in the fact “that one can make change simply by standing for truth.” He emphasized that African-American civil rights didn?t begin in the 1950s, but instead, has been a part of American life since the formation of the country. The difference in the modern civil rights movement, he said, is that “people can imagine a more ambitious campaign to end the constraints of their lives.”
Green said that his investigation into the working relationship between the two civil rights leaders as well as his visit to West Chester is “something that matters to me personally as well as intellectually.” He said his father, Earnest Green, was one of the nine African-American students to integrate Central High in Little Rock, Ark., in the highly controversial national move toward desegregation in the 1950s. Green said that his father also came to speak at West Chester University in the past.
His father?s activism heavilyinfluenced Green, and he has fond memories of meeting Bayard Rustin in his home as a child. He described Rustin as “the most charismatic adult I?d ever seen,” and said, “That is part of his genius.”
In fact, Bayard Rustin is of special importance to West Chester, and has recently been the subject of much debate in the community. The new high school in the borough will be named for the historic activist, although there was much resistance from some residents about the name due to Rustin?s controversial past.
In a series of public hearings, some residents expressed anger at naming a local high school for an historical figure who was openly homosexual and who had once been a youth organizer for the Young Communist League in the early days of his activism in the 1940s.
While not much was known about Rustin in the past, Green credits the documentary film “Brother Outsider,” as well as many recent books, for “a long overdue renaissance of interest” in the activist. Green is a commentator for the film, author of the book “Time Longer than Rope: Studies in African American Activism,” and an assistant professor of American studies at New York University.