Interview with civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle
Fri, Apr 19, 2013 – Emmeline Kim
429Magazine interviews Walter Naegle, who met his long time partner Bayard Rustin in April of 1977. By this point, Rustin had already organized the March on Washington, which occurred in ’63, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in order to make a stand for peace and unity between black and white communities throughout the country at a time of severe segregation.
Rustin and King stood alongside historical figures such as Rosa Parks and musical talents Bob Dylan and Joan Baez for the monumental event. Rustin was the Deputy Director and chief organizer behind the March on Washington, which is still considered one of the largest political rallies for human rights in US history.
During the last years of Rustin’s life, Naegle worked closely in the office with his partner of 10 years. Naegle travelled with Rustin on human right’s missions and at times contributed ideas to some of his later writing.
After Rustin’s death, Naegle received occasional invitations to speak about Rustin’s life and work as a gay civil rights activist. Opportunities picked up considerably after “Brother Outsider” was released in 2003.
Filmmakers Sam Pollard, Bennett Singer, and Nancy Kates produced “Brother Outsider” through Question Why Films, which premiered as an official selection at Sundance Film Festival in 2003.
The film takes a vibrant, multi-faceted approach in presenting the life of Rustin as the viewer is given various interviews, archival footage, Rustin’s writing through first-person voice, excerpts from Rustin’s FBI files, as well as songs sung by Rustin himself since he was also a musician. “Brother Outsider” is available for instant streaming on Netflix.
Rustin was a Quaker like his grandmother, and his ability to advise King throughout his career on non-violent protest was attributed to his belief in the Quaker values of peace and community. Naegle, while raised Roman Catholic, presently does not belong to any organized religion, but remembers his first contact with Quakers during the Vietnam War as Naegle himself struggled with the fundamental principles behind the draft.
429Magazine: They say Rustin’s passion for non-violent protest was rooted in his personal beliefs as a Quaker. How do you think his love for peace and community has influenced your life?
Walter Naegle: Although I am not a Quaker, I am committed to the values they uphold. I believe in the basic goodness of the human spirit and in the pursuit of truth. Gandhi said that truth is God and I would agree. Also with Keats – beauty is truth.
429Mag: How do you think these beliefs have manifested for you personally?
Naegle: I try to work for organizations that are committed to the betterment of the human condition… hospitals, educational institutions, social service organizations… I volunteer my skills and time to similar groups. I try to be kind, generous, and loving in my personal relationships and working with Bayard was an opportunity to put my beliefs into practice.
429Mag: Prior to meeting Rustin, you were working at Rockefeller University… can you tell me about that time?
Naegle: I was working as an administrative assistant for graduate students doing scientific research. I met him in April and I continued to work there that summer. I was planning to move to the West Coast, but as our relationship developed I decided I would stay in New York and go back to school.
429Mag: What did you study at Fordham University?
Naegle: Studio art was my major. I express my artistic side mostly through photography, but I’d like to go back to painting.
429Mag: Why were you thinking of moving to the West Coast? Dream deferred?
Naegle: I was getting a little tired of the New York hustle and bustle. New York in the 70s had some real challenges. I still thought of San Francisco as an ideal place for a gay man to live, along with the milder weather and smaller size.
429Mag: Were you out before you met Rustin?
Naegle: I was certainly out with my friends and co-workers. I’m sure my family suspected that I was gay, but I had only discussed it with one sister. I didn’t really have a serious relationship until I met Bayard. He became a part of my family, joining us on holidays, family gatherings, etc.
429Mag: Did you ever fight with Rustin? Any memorable quarrels or disagreements?
Naegle: No, except for maybe a few minor disagreements. Bayard had a belief that one shouldn’t go to sleep at night without reconciling with someone with whom they had crossed words.
429Mag: What about Bayard was very Quaker do you think?
Naegle: His belief in the oneness of the human family. His belief in the presence of the divine in each of us. His belief in listening to the inner voice – conscience. His belief in silent worship and meditation. Lastly, his belief in nonviolence, and in the redemption of suffering.
429Mag: What was your happiest day like with Rustin?
Naegle: Having nothing scheduled. If we were in New York, just strolling around Greenwich Village visiting the antique shops and auction houses… having dinner with friends… if we were vacationing in Barbados, just relaxing, reading, having a leisurely lunch of fresh fish or going for a late afternoon swim.
429Mag: What was it like during his last days?
Naegle: There was clearly something wrong. He didn’t have his usual energy and spark. He spent more time in bed. It was just difficult to pinpoint what the problem was.
429Mag: When do you miss him most?
Naegle: I miss him all the time, but perhaps most when I travel to new places. Bayard loved meeting new people and visiting new places and cultures. I do also, but still don’t have the confidence and outgoing personality that he had.
429Mag: One last question. Did you ever imagine that you would fall so much in love?
Naegle: Of course. I think we all imagine that.
Throughout the years Naegle has spoken at prestigious academic institutions such as Yale University and NYU along with the Chicago History Museum, Friends Seminary, and many others.
His favorite audiences are those that are inter-generational. Naegle appreciates a crowd that is mixed up with people who lived through some of the historical events and younger folks who were born decades after.
He comes from a small town in northwest New Jersey and has lived in NYC all his adult life, except for a year when he worked in Chicago with VISA (Volunteers in Student Activities).
Currently, Naegle works part-time for the New York Yearly Meeting and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) while he continues to speak to audiences everywhere about Rustin’s life as a human rights activist.