Penn South Plaque Lauds the Bayard Rustin Legacy

The plaque honoring Bayard Rustin, at Penn South on W. 28th St. between Eighth and Ninth Aves. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

BY WINNIE McCROY | With reverence for history and in high spirits for the occasion meant to mark it, a crowd of 200 gathered on the morning of Thurs., June 28 for a dedication ceremony unveiling a plaque to honor civil and gay rights activist Bayard Rustin (1912–1987). In addition to community groups and elected officials, Rustin’s longtime surviving partner, Walter Naegle, addressed those outside Penn South’s Building 7B — the W. 28th St. building where Bayard lived.

The co-op decided that this was a great opportunity to raise the profile of Bayard Rustin and help bring attention to his legacy.

“Although Bayard is mostly known for his work in the struggle for African American civil rights, his was a life committed to justice and equality for all people,” said Naegle, who choked up as he noted, “He believed in the promises… of our Constitution and thus was compelled to protest the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, while at the same time sitting-in, leading boycotts, and fighting to end Jim Crow segregation.”

During their decade together, Rustin devoted himself to the international human rights struggle, speaking on behalf of Jews persecuted in the Soviet Union, meeting with Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement, working with Freedom House to promote democratic values, and helping found the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Refugees.

“Were he alive today,” Naegle assured, “he would be shocked that Haitians who came [here] as refugees from violence and natural disasters would be fleeing to Canada out of the fear of deportation. He would be appalled by policy decisions lacking compassion for those in most need — people living in poverty and those risking their lives seeking a safer, better life. But he would be fighting back, organizing, writing and doing so with logic, reason, facts and a civility that seems to have also fled our national conversation. Maybe it’s on its way to Canada.”

Naegle joked that when Rustin first moved into Penn South, it wasn’t long before the FBI outfitted the apartment with wiretaps. Although frank about the state of national politics, Naegle was very welcoming to the many elected officials present.

Bayard Rustin’s surviving partner Walter Naegle, at podium, still resides at the Penn South apartment he shared with Rustin (9J, “for justice,” he said). | Photo by Winnie McCroy

Among the elected officials on hand were City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, State Senator Brad Hoylman, City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and Richard Ravitch, former lieutenant governor of New York, who remembered Bayard telling his children stories of being on a chain gang in North Carolina.

Johnson said it was fitting to install the plaque across the street from Manhattan’s only documented Underground Railroad site: Hopper-Gibbons House (339 W. 29th St. btw. Eighth & Ninth Ave., in the Lamartine Place Historic District). He also noted that because Rustin was “a gay man born in 1912, marginalized for years by both his enemies and his allies,” he did not get the credit he rightfully deserved. Rustin went on to fight for gay rights, urging people to protest and live in dignity.

When he came out as gay in 1999, Johnson was the only out gay student in a school of 1,500. He felt suicidal and alone, and only survived thanks to mentors like Rustin, who “cleared the path for a younger generation of LGBT leaders to move the needle of society on acceptance. I stand here on the shoulders of Bayard Rustin. My ability to see the connections between LGBT and other civil rights movements would not be possible without him.”

From 1948’s Journey of Reconciliation, aka the “First Freedom Ride” (Bayard Rustin in back row, with bow tie). | Photo courtesy of Walter Naegle

With this new memorial at Penn South, Johnson told Manhattan Express, “Our community is celebrating Bayard Rustin’s many achievements, including his commitment toward all of humanity regardless of any of the superficial barriers that may seem to separate us. It’s a lesson we would do well to heed today. I am so happy and proud to see him honored for his life’s work. I want to thank Penn South for recognizing Bayard Rustin and helping secure his rightful place in history.”

Senator Hoylman echoed this sentiment, saying that as a gay man, he feels a debt for everything Rustin did to pave the way, and was astounded by his achievements, given the time in which he lived.

“One of my favorite expressions from Bayard Rustin is, ‘We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.’ Boy does that apply to these times!” Hoylman said. “If you think about Bayard Rustin’s contributions to the civil rights movement, to the March on Washington, to the desegregation of public schools, protecting immigrants, fighting for LGBT people and people of color, people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and how relevant that is today, we not only recognize Mr. Rustin and his accomplishments, but take a page from history on how we resist the worst policies that are being imposed on this country.”

Also speaking at the dedication was openly gay Queens Councilmember Dromm, who, as a 25-year public school teacher, promoted the Rainbow Curriculum. He bemoaned the “conspiracy of silence” around lives like Rustin’s, saying that long before the term “intersectionality” was coined, Rustin was fighting for justice on multiple fronts.

“Our students deserve to learn about Bayard and be inspired by his life. Our country needs to hear Bayard’s message more than ever,” Dromm said. “While this administration refuses to condemn neo-Nazi violence, tears children from their parents and locks them in cages, and dismantles civil rights protections wherever they’re found, Bayard’s response to hatred was love. His response to violence was nonviolence; his response to injustice was justice. The principles that guided his life helped show the way forward for our country, and if we encourage the teaching of his story, they will continue to do so.”

Bayard Rustin “cleared the path for a younger generation of LGBT leaders,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson (at podium). | Photo by Winnie McCroy

This plaque outside Penn South is the result of years of work by several groups and individuals, including Mario Mazzoni, director of education & communications for Mutual Redevelopment Houses, Inc. The New York State Board for Historic Preservation unanimously approved Rustin’s home at 340 W. 28th St., Building 7B, for landmark status in December 2015, and it became part of the National Register of Historic Places in March 2016.

Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and later became a Quaker, believing in non-violent action. On hand for the ceremony was Cynthia Edwards, associate producer of the film “Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries,” to be shown at the New Hope Film Festival on Sat., July 21. She said Naegle provided them with pictures of Rustin involved in organizing efforts.

Rustin worked on many civil rights campaigns, and was Deputy Director of the historic August 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC. In the ’80s, he lobbied New York City to support a lesbian and gay rights bill. He moved into Penn South in 1962; his partner Naegle joined him in 1977, and continues to live there today.

Another Penn South cohort of Rustin’s was civil rights and labor movement leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), who created the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Today, Norman Hill, President Emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and his wife, Velma, live there. The Hills were deeply involved in the civil rights movement — Norman as a field organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, and Velma, who sustained injury at the 1960 wade-in at Chicago’s Rainbow Beach.

“I worked with Bayard Rustin, who was the first executive director of the Institute and later became president,” Hill recalled. “At that time we were made up primarily of black trade unions, welcoming to anyone sharing our concerns for racial justice. We created programs in black communities and brought their concerns back to the labor movement, fostering the Black-Labor Alliance for economic justice, which has affiliates in 30 states including one right here in NYC.”

He also noted Rustin was successful because of his adherence to five principles: Be committed to a society in which economic justice and racial equality would prevail; be a committed integrationist, realize that the workers’ trade union movement and civil rights movements were the same; be committed to self-liberation; be committed to mass actions and challenge key important decisions; and be committed to non-violence.

Norman Hill, at podium. Standing, in hat, is Eula Johnson, who once worked for Hill and Rustin. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

Rustin was arrested over 20 times in his fight for social equality. For the past two years, Hill worked with Naegle to “capture the essence of who Bayard was and the breadth of his position.”

Amber Nicosia, a member of the board of directors at Penn South, grew up there with her Grandma Rita. After Nicosia came out as lesbian in junior high school, Rustin became her mentor, suggesting she attend a Quaker school in Pennsylvania for safety. She got expelled in her sophomore year for civil disobedience.

“What I remember most about Bayard was his extraordinary warmth, how he was always smiling, how he enjoyed helping other people,” Nicosia said. “In a time when so many people were full of fear, Bayard was an optimist. He would remind me that the world will change, will become a better place, if you are willing to fight for it.” Nicosia still lives in Penn South, now with her wife and children. Like many at the dedication ceremony, she believes the most important thing we can do is to educate and inspire the next generation.

“Bayard believed we needed angelic troublemakers, with the emphasis on angelic,” said Naegle. “He believed in healing communities and building coalitions to push back against powerful interests that would seek to keep us divided. I hope this plaque is not just a reminder of who he was and what he stood for, but also an inspiration for young people to carry on the struggle for justice and equality in these difficult times.”

Longtime Penn South resident Amber Nicosia (at podium) relied on Bayard Rustin to be her mentor. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

Text on the Plaque
Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)

Bayard Rustin was an essential figure in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement who shaped many of its core principles, strategies, and defining events.

Beginning in the 1940s, Rustin spearheaded efforts to dismantle racial discrimination and segregation laws in the U.S. using Gandhian nonviolent methods. Convinced that these tactics could transform struggles for black American liberation and equality, Rustin organized and led civil disobedience actions across the country, including many of the first freedom rides and sit-ins. These pioneering acts would become the blueprints for major racial justice campaigns that advanced groundbreaking legislation and roused the national consciousness.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first emerged as a leader during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56, Rustin introduced King to the foundations of nonviolent direct action. Rustin became a trusted mentor and advisor to King, and served the growing movement from behind the scenes as a strategist, writer, founder of key coalitions, and architect of major mobilizations.

In 1963, facing violent backlash and seeking a political breakthrough, movement leaders called for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and chose Rustin to be its chief organizer. Masterfully planned and orchestrated, it was the largest demonstration in the nation’s history, and was instrumental in galvanizing support for landmark federal civil rights laws.

The era and its legacy are imbued with Rustin’s vision. With his influence, nonviolent resistance became the moral and strategic cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout his rich and varied life, Rustin lent his talents and expertise to a diverse array of social causes ranging from global peace to economic justice, often alongside his mentor, civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph.

Rustin was an openly and unapologetically gay black man in an era of intense discrimination. It took decades for Rustin to be recognized for his central roles in numerous fights for equality and human dignity.

340 West 28th Street

Bayard Rustin’s residence from 1962 to 1987

National Register of Historic Places

L to R: Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle, 1983. | Photo courtesy of Walter Naegle

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