Before the freedom riders and Martin Luther King Jr., there was Bayard Rustin, a gay African American Quaker and civil rights activist. Rustin taught King Ghandian non-violence and was the major organizer for the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin once stated that if we want peace and social justice, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.”
Cincinnati Composer and long-time Choral director Steve Milloy found his role model late in his life.
“I have sung or heard of works for Mathew Shepherd, done works about Harvey Milk”, says Milloy. “And I kept thinking when am I going to sing a work about somebody who looks like me? Who represents where I stand in the world?”
When Milloy learned about Bayard Rustin, he knew he found his role model, and he wanted to musically tell Rustin’s story. So a few years later he spoke to Jane Ramseyer-Miller, who grew up a lesbian in the Mennonite church and directs One Voice, a GLBTQ choir in Minneapolis.
Ramseyer-Miller also learned about Rustin late in her life and had asked herself how, from her background and experiences, she had not earlier heard of this gay Quaker activist. So Milloy’s request came to her as inspiration.
Ramseyer-Miller recalls that first conversation. “And he said to me have you ever heard of Bayard Rustin? And I said yes I have! And Steve said I want to compose a major work. And I said, yeah, I’ll commission it, I’ll raise the money and figure out how to do it.”
The choice to compose a choral work of Rustin’s life was a natural as singing was central to Rustin’s soul. Before Rustin became an activist in the 1940’s, he was a professional singer in New York.
Rustin’s biographer John D’Emilio explains that Rustin saw music as part of activism, that “effortlessly Rustin would move from giving a talk to suddenly singing a song that was designed to rouse everybody’s spirit and pull them together.”
D’Emilio’s biography of Rustin, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin examines how Rustin worked in the labor, peace, and civil rights groups of the 1940’s and 50’s because he understood the deep connections between these movements that later led to the activism of the 60’s. He took all that work with him when he was imprisoned as a war resister in World War II. D’Emilio’s research of prison records revealed just how much of an “angelic troublemaker” Rustin was.
As D’Emilio recounts Rustin’s story, “In federal prison, he was Bayard Rustin, so he didn’t just sit in his cell, he began organizing prisoners against racial segregation. In order to stop him, federal prison officials brought him up on sex charges."
Rustin understood that when he would get into trouble for being gay, which happened several times in his life, his actions posed a liability for the movements that he worked for. D’Emilio says, “Rustin actually had to strategize and think about how to be an effective leader and really make a difference in these movements without the attention focusing on him."
In the early 60’s, however, civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell threatened to spread rumors that Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. were lovers if Rustin didn’t leave the movement. So Rustin withdrew further into the background.
Ramseyer-Miller knew they were trying to tell a complex story. She remarks, “It was hard in setting this up to figure out how do you talk about Bayard Rustin getting arrested in the back of a car? How do you talk about what happened with the movement being willing to let this man go?”
Fortunately, for the civil rights movement, the leaders of the ‘63 March on Washington recognized that Rustin was the only one who could organize the march with less than 2 months. Rustin returned to organize the rally of a quarter of a million people in just seven weeks, a triumph recounted in the choral work.
For Milloy, the complexity of Rustin’s story required different musical styles, such as ragtime, gospel, and jazz that reflected Rustin’s complex actions in these different historical periods of his life. The song “Stick in the Wheel”, for instance, depicts Rustin’s practice of non-violence. Rustin went to India to study Ghandian non-violence and taught King its practice. Rustin eloquently expresses this philosophy with a simple metaphor: “The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places, so wheels don’t turn. “
Milloy explains how he translates that non-violent protest into the music of “Stick in the Wheel”, "[I] just wanted some slinky jazz piece that felt like you kind of sneaking into different corners and different spots and stopping things. And that’s where there’s a lot of bah da dah! There’s a lot of stop time in the piece."
But Milloy’s score also captures Rustin’s sexuality in a Tango. Milloy says that in the early 20th century, the Tango form was immensely popular and considered a very sensual musical style. The song Tango captures that other side of Rustin’s life.
As Milloy reminds us, “Bayard loved men. And he did not hide that fact, and he got in trouble and he got arrested for it.”
So Milloy composed the song Tango as “a bittersweet love song which actually turns into a song of defiance and triumph.”
“Behind the Dream” leads up to the power of the 1963 March. But the show’s story of civil rights and social justice doesn’t stop there. In “March On,” the final section of the work, the narrators recount some of the major events since 1963 that have now led us to Black Lives Matter, a movement started by three African American queer lesbians.
Ramseyer-Miller remembers the first performance of the show just after the 2017 inauguration. “A number of the audience members said to me, I didn’t expect to be brought to the present I didn’t expect to have so much hope and be moved to action today. Ramseyer-Miller states with pride, “And that’s exactly what we wanted audiences to hear."
The World House Choir and friends will perform the Ohio Premiere of “The Man Behind the Dream,” the story of Bayard Rustin in Yellow Springs, Dayton and Cincinnati with shows September 6 - 9. Learn more at: https://worldhousechoir.org/