How a podcast about gay pacifist civil rights hero Bayard Rustin gave me some hope for here

I will start with a confession: I am obsessed with podcasts. Like, obsessed-obsessed. I probably listen to more than 12 hours of podcasts a week. Mostly, I love the ones that are focused on stories and narratives (My top eight these days are: This American Life; Startup; Love + Radio; Snap Judgement; the Heart; the Moth; Death, Sex & Money; & Reply All. Of course I miss Serial. (For those of you for whom for this is all gibberish, apologies. For those of you for whom this list means something, I’m always happy for more recommendations. Anyway.))

The other day, I listened to an incredible story-podcast, which I came to via Slate’s list of the 25 “Best Podcast Episodes Ever,” on a show, is called  State of the Re:Union, from 2010. It is a beautiful retelling by host Al Letson and many guests, of the story of Bayard Rustin, the black gay pacifist from Pennsylvania who told Martin Luther King Jr. to get rid of his armed guards’ guns in Montgomery during the Bus Boycott of 1955; who sat for two years in prison as a conscientious objector during WWII, and then, soon after his release, was arrested again and again as he lead nonviolent direction actions on segregated buses in 1947, proceeding the better-known Freedom Rides by more than a decade; who was in many ways the chief architect behind the March on Washington, but who was marginalized, in large part, because of his homosexuality (although later, there were ideological fissures, too, when black power activists saw his emphasis on economic justice as missing the point, and pacifist groups were disappointed by his choice to separate the Civil Rights issue from opposition to the Vietnam War, putting the former first).

I’d read some about Rustin before, in Taylor Branch’s breathtaking history of the Civil Rights Movement 1963-65, Pillar of Fire, and in Clayborn Carson’s series of lectures at Stanford about Rustin, “Radical Outsider.” But this podcast is really special: it is beautifully edited, and includes some of the components only available in audio, such as recordings of Rustin singing “Take this Hammer” during his lectures across the United States, and the palpable emotion in the voice of those who knew him, speaking about his life and commitment to justice.

Take 53 minutes, become wiser. “Bayard Rustin: Who Is This Man?

Bayard Rustin. Credit: Digital Collections, Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library
Bayard Rustin. Credit: Digital Collections, Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library

How does this connect things here? Learning about Rustin’s proto-Freedom Rides in 1947 gave me a deep encouragement that even if change isn’t right around the corner right now (which it’s not, I don’t think), there is still so much to do in order to practice the tactics, train leaders, build community and chip away at the system so that when change is closer at hand, we will be more ready to help it along.