MLK’s Invisible Man

| January 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

“I tell you, it is not me you are looking at,

Not me you are grinning at, not me your confidential looks

Incriminate, but that other person, if person,

You thought I was. . .”

–T.S. Eliot, Family Reunion


The above excerpt may at first appear random, at least in context of the annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this weekend.  However, read in the context of its placement as introductory epigraph for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it gains not only context but also contemporaneousness; for it implies that the man we honor in remembrance every mid-January was indeed an invisible man in many ways—one invisible man among many–even as he spoke volubly on behalf of invisible peoples around the country and around the world.

Perhaps more to my point, the words are literalized in the presence of the recently dedicated King Memorial in Washington, D.C. The monument speaks of generations deleted from history during the Middle Passage in what playwright August Wilson described as the largest cemetery in the world: the Atlantic Ocean. It speaks of what King’s colleague, James Baldwin, agonized over in his essay, “Many Thousands Gone.” Sadly, it speaks even today, to a world in which presidential candidates try to render blackness invisible via inflammatory racist rhetoric and blind attempts to glorify themselves and their places in history, and in which Ohio landlords—yes, in 2012–erect “white only” signs on their swimming pools.  Indeed, the looming likeness of Dr. King itself, carved in granite, serves as nexus of the monument that turns the “mountain of despair” into the “stone of hope,” even as it reminds us that the need for his work has not dissipated.  Efforts to whitewash the nation’s dirty laundry remain in full force, with people of color targeted as scapegoats for welfare abuse, with legal and illegal immigrants targeted as the reason for decline of the underpaying public employment sector, and with other marginalized peoples swimming in equally murky waters of public perception.  One voice in particular, among the throng of Dr. King’s acolytes, understood those efforts at erasure perhaps more than even King himself and is evidenced in an unfortunate physical absence at the new site of pilgrimage.

This past September, between the dates of the King memorial’s postponed dedication and its actual dedication on October 16, 2012, as I stood in front of the stern, stone visage of the late civil rights leader, I took a moment to stand still, to somehow find a way to access the peace that formed the center of Dr. King’s rhetorical appeal and appeals.  The memorial stands at the edge of the National Mall, near the Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool that served as one of his most memorable pulpits. Overlooking the tidal basin, facing most prominently the Jefferson Memorial, and surrounded by a curved stone wall that silences the bustle of the city’s roadways, the site lends itself to quietude. With waves lapping gently and crowds maintaining a hush of respect, the silence was overwhelming, even as it resonated with memories of the shouts, screams and gunfire that punctuated Dr. King’s efforts toward the peace reflected in the inscriptions of his words across the curving granite.  However, Eliot’s epigraphic words resounded in my thoughts as well: “it is not me you are looking at.”  And I considered another invisible man, rendered invisible, if not silent, in the name of Dr. King’s quest: Bayard Rustin.

The March on Washington in August, 1963 may be forever remembered as the event that launched Dr. King into the upper reaches of American political consciousness, but it was also the pinnacle of Bayard Rustin’s achievement precisely because it was also the pinnacle of Dr. King’s.  I could hardly consider the victories of King without considering the contributions of Rustin, the logistical mastermind behind the march, who marshaled hundreds of off-duty police and firefighters, thousands of volunteers, transportation and food coordinators, groups competing for national exposure, and all the multi-voiced masses making up the vital crowd that marched on that historic day.   If Dr. King provided the inspiration and served as the public face of the march, Rustin was its architect, nursemaid, and cheerleader.  Despite decades of attempts to render him invisible, Rustin has recently begun to receive the recognition he so deserved but was historically denied because of one primary fact: he was gay—and openly so.

According to Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Rustin’s was “a lifetime of challenging conventions of politics, race and sexuality.” His FBI file is a 10,000 page testament to his ability to challenge American hegemony, detailing his efforts at fighting against segregation, union-busting, nuclear proliferation, and even Japanese internment camps.  In the shadow of Dr. King’s new monument, I pondered the shadow that lay over his history with the slain leader, as strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott and the incorporation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as the promulgation of policies supporting peaceful nonaggression in King’s civil rights activities.  Standing beside King while the minister thundered his secular sermon of peaceful coexistence and equality, appearing on the cover of Life, and a constant presence on the podium, Rustin was yet the invisible face of the movement, the silent voice of the people, the openly gay man whose very presence threatened some members of the movement in their desire to avoid retaliation and recrimination for the movement’s audacity to practice what it preached.  While some quarters continue to see gay rights as inherent to King’s message, some persist in decrying queer presence in what they see as a proprietary quest for constitutional equality.  That both sides existed in the presence of Bayard Rustin, at a time when queer visibility created pariahs of peacemakers, is remarkable testament to Rustin’s drive and understanding of the points of contact among all Americans who continue to be denied access to a full citizenship.  It was not his blackness that forced his evisceration from the story of American civil rights action; it was not his Africanic roots that contributed to his relative invisibility as he continued to organize until the time of his death in 1987.  Rather, it was his open and pronounced acceptance of all aspects of his true identity as a gay man of color.

When I mentioned my reflections on Rustin to a friend who had accompanied me to the memorial, he queried earnestly, “Isn’t it a shame that there is no memorial to him?”  I looked around at the hundreds of white, brown and black faces reading Dr. King’s words carved into stone: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  I realized then, with gratitude, that brother Rustin did, indeed, have a memorial, one that lived in the words, actions and philosophy of Dr. King.  His physical presence may remain largely invisible, but that does not render it powerless.  In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s titular narrator declaims that even an invisible man can have a socially responsible role to play:

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?

. . . .Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

In the ponderous granite figure of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the respectful quietude of the attendant masses, and in the towering achievement of this man of peace, Bayard Rustin continues to speak, even on the lower frequencies, for all of us: a fitting tribute to the man—or men—who forged a path to the mountaintop.



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Don Dagnon

About the Author ()

Dr. Don Gagnon is an associate professor of English at Western Connecticut State University. He specializes in modern drama and minority literatures, and serves as chair of the American Studies program. He has been published in Black Renaissance/Noire, Men and Masculinities, and The Eugene O'Neill Review, among other journals, and was recently invited to speak on August Wilson at both the Modern Language Association annual conference in Seattle and the National Black Writers Conference in Brooklyn.

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