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He organized the March on Washington. Why don't more people know about Bayard Rustin?

Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin pictured in New York in August 1963.
Eddie Adams
/
AP
Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin pictured in New York in August 1963.

Updated January 14, 2024 at 7:11 AM ET

Actor Colman Domingo was a college student at Temple University when he first learned about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

A star athlete from Westchester, Pa., Rustin introduced the idea of passive resistance to Martin Luther King Jr. and served as the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Domingo wondered why he hadn't heard of him before.

"This is a person of such size and someone who seems to be full in their experience in the world. How is it possible that he's been erased from history?" Domingo says. "But, of course, ... once I found out he was openly gay, I understood exactly why."

At the time, Domingo was coming to terms with his own sexuality. As he learned more about Rustin, he began to see the late activist as a "North Star" who refused to be marginalized. Instead, Domingo says, Rustin was true to himself and his sexuality — while refusing to put limits on what he could achieve.

"I must have downloaded that information in some way, shape or form," Domingo says. "And that's sort of helped me live my life completely and wholly."

By starring in the new biopic Rustin, Domingo hopes to spotlight the activist's contributions to the civil rights movement. Domingo also stars in the new musical film adaptation of The Color Purple. He won an Emmy in 2022 for his role as a guest actor in the HBO series Euphoria.


Interview highlights

On capturing Bayard Rustin's accent in the film

As I was doing research and I was finding ... interviews, debates, you name it, I noticed he had sort of a somewhat mid-Atlantic standard accent, very much akin to like, Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis. And at times it would sound a bit more British, and at times it would sort of fall away. And I was like, wait a minute, this guy was from West Chester, Pa. I'm from Philadelphia. We don't sound like that. ...

Colman Domingo plays civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in the biopic <em>Rustin</em>.
/ Netflix
/
Netflix
Colman Domingo plays civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in the biopic Rustin.

I asked [civil rights organizer] Rachelle Horowitz, I said, "Well, where did that accent come from?" And she said, "Well, he made it up." And I thought, Wait, what? ... Who makes up an accent? Well, this guy does, which is brilliant. He made it up for a couple of reasons. One in particular is that he had a speech impediment. He used to stutter, so he would do work to make sure he was clear in his language, and he would also heighten it because he just was obsessed with anything British, which is why he played the lute and sang Elizabethan love songs.

On Steven Spielberg's 1985 film The Color Purple

I first saw the movie in 1985, and I think I've watched it maybe 50 to 100 times in my life. I think what Steven Spielberg did in 1985 was masterful. It was beautiful to see ... and it really does tell you so much about who we are as African Americans in America. And it deals with family. It deals with generational trauma. It deals with women — people maybe like your mom and grandmother, your aunties — having conversations that seem private, or dealing with male-female relationships or father-son [relationships] that are complex. ... I feel like I'm watching my family in some way — not my immediate family, but, like, generationally: Where do we come from? How do we get here? What are still our struggles? It's that timeless, actually. So I think that's why anytime it was on, anytime it's on a flight, I'll watch it.

On playing the abusive husband Mister in The Color Purple

I had to look within. For me, that makes it more human, to understand that we all have good in us, and that we all have the capability to do some horrible things. If we weren't as evolved, [if] life didn't go well for us in some way, we can download and say, "Well, how will we feel? Why would we want to do that?" And that's the way I found Mister. I started to think, "Well, what was his dreams? What did he want? What did he need? What happened when he didn't get it? What systems were he living under? Why would he do this to this young woman?" And that's the way I start to find character and find out how he operated. ...

When I got offered [the role], I went to the Broadway musical and listened to all [of Mister's] songs. ... And then by the time we got into production, [his] songs were cut. And I didn't say anything. I just thought, well, that's interesting. I wonder why. ... And so I made a decision for myself as an actor. I thought, what happens to a person when they have no song? He didn't have a song. That's part of his problem. ... Mister is just like his father. And they're still dealing with some pain and trauma and not evolving. I think when you're able to free yourself and liberate yourself, you can sing. But this man was in a prison of his own design.

On coming out to his family when he was 21

I came back home from living in San Francisco and [my brother] takes me to a strip club because, you know, that's what big brothers do. ... So he takes me there and I felt like such a fraud. And so I had to excuse myself with him. And I took him aside. And out of every one of my family, I never thought that I would come out to my older brother first. ... And he was so surprised, he looked at me and he just hugged me, said, "I love you anyway." He said, "I'm going to keep this between us."

And then he tells my sister. My sister calls me and she's pissed ... because I didn't tell her first. And then we agreed that, "OK, let's just keep this between us." But she also said, "But when you're ready, you should tell Mom first, because she shouldn't hear it second hand like I did." And so then ... I came out to my mom and as she was struggling to find the words — and it wasn't easy for her because it was just a little confusing — ... she said, "Well, this is just between us." ... And then 20 minutes later she calls me and she says, "Hey, so I talked to your stepfather" ... and she hands the phone to my stepfather. Here he is. And he says to me, ... "You're a good boy. You've always been a good boy. And I just want you to know that I think love is love." And I was so overwhelmed. I started crying.

Lauren Krenzel and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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