Fordham Alumni talks activism and life stories
by Robin Happel
Walter Naegle, a Fordham alumnus, was the long-term partner of Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who served as chief strategist of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and mentored Dr. King in practical non-violence. In this interview, Mr. Naegle reflects on his life in NYC, the progress of LGBT rights at Fordham, and Rustin’s lasting legacy.
Q: Do you have any memories of Fordham that particularly stand out?
Naegle: You know, I was thinking about that… I wouldn’t say there was any one thing that particularly stands out. It’s a Catholic institution. I was raised Roman Catholic, but by the time I came here I was pretty much done with all that. But it stays with you through your life. And I guess I saw Fordham as a somewhat progressive institution, as Catholic institutions go. The Jesuits are kind of famous for being on the cutting edge of Catholicism, if there is such a thing … Just as I was walking over here, I was thinking that when I was here there was absolutely no discussion of LGBT issues. There certainly wasn’t any kind of an LGBT organization. I wonder if there is now.
Q: We have a couple actually. The Rainbow Rams, which is an alumni organization, and the Pride Alliance, which is more for undergrads.
Naegle: Making progress here! I mean, I don’t think anything like that would have been permitted at the time I was here… In one of my classes, I don’t know what year it was, we were told to write an autobiographical statement. And I wrote my statement, and at that time I said I was homosexual – which I still am, but the term ‘gay’ wasn’t so popularly used back then. And, you know, nobody fainted, nobody gasped, nobody tried to hit me – but I wouldn’t say they went out of their way to be overly friendly either.
Q: You say in your documentary Bayard & Me that meeting Rustin on a street corner was “when lightning struck.” Do you feel like you fell in love at first sight?
Naegle: Like something out of Hollywood in the 40’s? Well, that’s an exaggeration of course. But there was obviously very strong attraction there, and… when you talk about falling in love at first sight, it’s obviously just visual. But when you have shared values, and ideals, and philosophies – that’s what really makes a relationship lasting. And obviously there was the racial difference, the age difference, it was a gay couple – it was like, how many strikes do we need here before we’re out at home plate? So, in some ways we were pushing up against a couple of different barriers, but when you’re in love with somebody you don’t really think about those things until somebody says something to you.
Q: What was it like to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
Naegle: Well, it was a wonderful experience – just very rewarding, a happy time. The people there are either getting the award or with people getting the award, or the people who made it possible – in Rustin’s case, a couple Congressional people who helped us were there.
Q: Were you involved in activism as a couple at all?
Naegle: A little bit. The last three or four years of his life he started to get invitations from LGBT groups, and speaking at conventions or meetings on college campuses. At that time a lot of it was centered really on human rights. He was really focusing very much on human rights issues, refugee concerns – we may have gone to some demonstrations together, but it was a little bit of a different focus from what he was doing in the 60’s. That part of the movement still existed, but it was less of a street movement and more, you know, working in the Congress.
Q: I know my friends and I have gone to several protests recently, so it’s unfortunately still in the streets somewhat.
Naegle: Yeah, but it’s certainly changed a lot in the past thirty years. And I think – I’m not going to credit it all to Bayard, but the whole idea of building coalitions, especially if you’re a small minority of people you gotta get people on your side if you want to get laws passed.
Q: I’ve always heard that Harvey Milk emphasized coalition-building too, and he would form alliances with teamsters and different groups. And that kind of reminded me of Bayard, because I know he was very involved in the Poor People’s Campaign in the late 60’s.
Naegle: Labor was always a big focus of his life, and one of his most important, if not his most important mentor was a man named A. Philip Randolph who was considered to be one of the most dangerous men in America by J. Edgar Hoover, which was kind of a badge of honor… He was really very important – a lot of young people nowadays don’t know the name, but if we had television in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s people would be thinking of A. Philip Randolph the way they think of Martin Luther King.
Q: I read once that Rustin was jailed for being gay in the 50’s. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Naegle: People tried to discourage him from being gay, or tried to get him straightened out – no pun intended. And he was okay with who he was, he accepted who he was… But back then, if you were gay, you were crucified – maybe I shouldn’t say that at a Catholic college. You were hung out to dry.
Q: How do you see Rustin’s legacy today?
Naegle: Well, there’s the fact that he’s still in the news fairly regularly – the Black Lives Matter organizers sort of lifted him up as their inspiration – and a lot of young organizers look to him. So I think that keeps him hot, if you will.
Mr. Naegle runs the Bayard Rustin Fund in honor of Rustin’s life and legacy. The short film Bayard & Me and the documentary Brother Outsider show their lives together in greater detail. Rustin’s book, Time on Two Crosses, is still in print today.