By Jeanmarie Higgins, Dramaturg
It is fortunate that many people wrote to Rustin throughout his life, and he to them. “This serves to remind us,” Julian Bond writes in the introduction to I Must Resist, “of how much is lost when letter writing falls in disfavor.” Rustin’s Notorious Offender’s file is filled with letters to and from friends and prison officials from 1944-45 while he was incarcerated at Ashland Prison. Many of these are characters in this play: Rustin’s lover, Davis Platt; his Quaker mentor, A. J. Muste; and Warden Robert P. Hagerman.
Held just a few hours away in College Park, Maryland, Rustin’s prison archive is an early study in his resolve to practice nonviolence in order to achieve racial equality. The archives hold drawings Rustin made to desegregate the prison’s public spaces; the transcript of the disciplinary board hearing that sent Rustin to solitary confinement; and countless lists of books his friends and family requested to send him.
Because he was gay, Rustin was never given the spotlight in the civil rights movement; although his ideas were front and center, he himself was hidden. The work Rustin did in prison in the ‘40s to improve the lives of his fellow inmates is an apt metaphor for the centrality of his work alongside the marginality that marks his legacy. Who was there to witness his extraordinary deeds at Ashland: directing an operetta for an audience of 51 inmates and guards; forming an interracial choir; convincing the powers-that be to integrate public spaces, allowing prisoners to intermingle, and to become friends?
We are here to witness it now. And we are fortunate to experience this time in Rustin’s life.
“Bayard Rustin.” Notorious Offenders Files, 1919 - 1975. National Archives Identifier 580698.
I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, M. Long, editor. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012.