Colman Domingo stars as Bayard Rustin, architect of the 1963 March on Washington, in the new film "Rustin." (Photo/Netflix)
Colman Domingo stars as Bayard Rustin, architect of the 1963 March on Washington, in the new film "Rustin." (Photo/Netflix)

Civil rights icon Bayard Rustin, subject of Netflix biopic, was ally to Jews and Israel

Early on in the Netflix biopic “Rustin,” the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom discuss when to schedule the gathering.

“Mondays are challenging for Protestant ministers, and Fridays complicated for our Jewish friends,” says march director Bayard Rustin (played by Colman Domingo). The group settles on Aug. 28 — a Wednesday.

It’s a small but revealing comment by the civil rights icon who, like his friend the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was an ally to American Jews and an outspoken supporter of the State of Israel. The new biopic focuses on the central role Rustin played in planning the historic march and on the challenges he faced as a Black and openly gay man during the 1950s and ’60s. But the film, released in November and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground, affords an opportunity to revisit Rustin’s legacy of activism on behalf of Jewish people and causes throughout his adult life.

“He felt very loyal to Jews because they supported the Civil Rights Movement financially and emotionally and by directly participating in it,” said Nancy Kates, the Berkeley-based director of a 2002 documentary about Rustin. “Even as the Black Power movement took off, he continued to be loyal to Jewish colleagues that had worked with him for years.”

In this screenshot from “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous March on Washington speech as Rustin (wearing glasses behind King) looks on.
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington as organizer Bayard Rustin (wearing glasses) looks on. (Screenshot/“Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”)

As documented in Kates’ film “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1912. He was raised by his Quaker grandparents, who ingrained in him the religion’s tenets of pacifism and the equality of all human beings.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Rustin refused the draft and was sentenced to three years in federal prison. He spent 20 months behind bars before the war ended in 1945. He later told one of his aides, Rachelle Horowitz, that had he known what the Nazis were doing to European Jewry, he would have gone against Quaker teachings and enlisted in the military — albeit as a noncombatant.

Bayard Rustin (left) and Rachelle Horowitz in 1968. (Photo/Courtesy Horowitz)
Bayard Rustin (left) and Rachelle Horowitz in 1968. (Photo/Courtesy Horowitz)

“It’s a mark of Bayard’s incredible strength and integrity” that he would make such a statement, Horowitz told J. in an interview this month. “He thought often about the nature of pacifism and its role in the world.”

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Rustin to serve on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which researched ways the U.S. could memorialize the Shoah. Rustin visited Treblinka and Auschwitz with commission chairman Elie Wiesel, and the two became close friends. Kates said Rustin once asked Wiesel if he could be considered a Jew for the purposes of making a minyan to recite Kaddish.

“He had a set of principles that he wanted to use to make the world a better place, which is actually quite Jewish,” Kates said.

One of the first Jewish causes Rustin supported was the Soviet Jewry movement, which he compared to the Civil Rights Movement. From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, he advocated in various ways for Jews who were stuck behind the Iron Curtain. He chaired the Ad Hoc Commission on the Rights of Soviet Jews, worked with members of Congress to put pressure on the USSR through legislation, spoke at rallies and wrote articles.

While in San Francisco in 1971 for AFL-CIO meetings, Rustin spoke about “the cultural genocide aimed at Russian Jews” with a reporter for the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin, one of this publication’s former names. He said Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the German-born leader of the American Jewish Committee and a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, recruited him into the movement to free them.

“I want Soviet Jews to make their own decision where to go,” Rustin said in the interview. “Israel is the oasis of democracy in the Middle East, and if they feel they wish to live there, it should be their right to do so.” He also quoted the sage Hillel in the interview.

A defender of Israel

Rustin’s support for the Jewish state was passionate and unwavering. He traveled to Israel for the first time in 1969 and met with Prime Minister Golda Meir. Horowitz recalled how Rustin excitedly shared details of the meeting with her upon his return.

“He came back in love,” she told J. “They apparently had an extraordinarily long conversation. Her secretary kept on coming in and saying it was over, and she didn’t let the meeting end. They smoked up a storm.”

Horowitz said Rustin sympathized with Meir after she was criticized for her dealings with the Israeli Black Panthers, Mizrahi activists who pressured the government for equal rights for immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries. “He was immensely impressed with her, and he thought she had been misunderstood with the Black Panthers,” she said.

Rustin felt strongly about publicly defending Israel. In June 1970, the A. Philip Randolph Institute — a Black trade union and economic justice organization, of which Rustin served as executive director — placed a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “An Appeal by Black Americans for United States Support to Israel.” The ad, which was signed by the leaders of numerous Black-led organizations, cheered Israel’s social and economic achievements and called on the U.S. government to “take steps to help guarantee Israel’s right to exist” and to provide it with more fighter jets.

Rustin also used the ad to push back against the narrative that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essentially a racial one.

“Some Americans, including a small minority of blacks, have expressed the feeling that the Middle East crisis is fundamentally a racial conflict between nonwhite Arabs and white Israelis,” the ad said. “We think that this point of view is not only uninformed but dangerously misleading. It ignores the fact that approximately half the Jewish Israeli population consists of immigrants from Asia and Africa.”

In order to focus more attention on Black-Jewish relations, Rustin formed Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC) in 1975.

“Jewish Americans supported us, marched with us and died for the cause of racial freedom,” he said at a news conference in New York announcing the committee’s formation. “Black people cannot turn their backs on a friend.”

As part of his work with BASIC, Rustin visited Israel again in 1981 to research the plight of the Hebrew Israelite community based in Dimona. The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, as they are known today, had accused the Israeli government of discrimination for denying them legal status and housing on the grounds that they were non-Jews who had settled in Israel illegally. Rustin met with Hebrew Israelite and Israeli leaders and, in a report, pressured the Israeli government to grant community members work permits and establish a clear policy about their status. (Today, dozens of African Hebrew Israelites are still fighting for residency in the country.)

What would he have said about the current war between Israel and Hamas?

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner from 1977 until his death in 1987, told J. he would not have agreed with all of Israel’s actions — before the war or during it.

“I think he’d be sorry that so many people are losing their lives, but he believed that Israel had the right to defend itself and is fighting for its survival against an enemy that has sworn to put an end to it,” Naegle said, adding, “He would still be supportive of a two-state solution.”

‘You can do it, so go do it.’

Rustin may always be best known for his role as the architect of the March on Washington — “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” as King described it from the podium that day.

In the Netflix film, Horowitz is played by Lilli Kay, who has one of the most memorable lines. When Rustin tasks Horowitz with overseeing transportation for the march, she responds, “For 100,000 people? I can’t even drive.”

Rachelle Horowitz on the set of "Rustin" with an actor playing a marshal (Photo/Courtesy)
Rachelle Horowitz on the set of “Rustin” with an actor playing a marshal. (Photo/Courtesy)

“That was true,” Horowitz told J., “but in reality he then said to me, ‘I know you can do it because you’re compulsive, and nobody who wants a bus will wind up without one if you do it.’ That was the kind of thing he did with everybody: ‘You can do it, so go do it.’”

Horowitz, 85, said she loved the film and praised Domingo for his soulful portrayal of Rustin, whom she met as an 18-year-old college student in New York City and worked with for 17 years. She visited the biopic’s set with another activist, Joyce Ladner, while the march scenes were being filmed on the National Mall in D.C.

“The young [actors] were coming over to us, and they were so appreciative of our role in the movement,” she said. “I got teary and thought it’s really incredible to be able to live one of the best days of your life over again.”

Kates, the documentary director, said the Netflix film will introduce a new generation to Rustin’s genius.

“I’m really happy that he’s getting a new round of interest, because he was a great American,” she said. “He was incredibly brilliant, and I wish we had more brilliant leaders. We could use some Bayard Rustins today.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.