Bill Morris in Building Operations on June 28, 2018
A piece of New York City history was immortalized on Thursday morning on the grounds of the sprawling Penn South co-op in Chelsea. As a large crowd looked on, a plaque was unveiled to honor the civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, who lived in Building 7 at the 2,820-unit complex from the year it opened, in 1962, until the end of his extraordinary and extraordinarily influential life in 1987.
Rustin, as the event’s numerous speakers reminded the crowd, was present at the beginning of the civil rights movement. He was raised in a Quaker household, and in the 1940s, as a member of the fledgling Congress of Racial Equality, Rustin traveled the country speaking out against racial discrimination and segregation, a mission that landed him on a North Carolina chain gang. Numerous jailings and beatings would follow. Rustin worked on the Montgomery bus boycott, where he introduced Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the pacifist teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Soon afterwards, Rustin helped King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with its commitment to nonviolent direct action. As a front-line soldier of the movement and a master tactician, Rustin helped organize sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and, most spectacularly, the March on Washington in 1963, which landed him on the cover of Life magazine.
Rustin was also openly and unapologetically gay.
“What I remember most about Bayard was his warmth,” Amber Nicocia, a long-time Penn South resident and current member of the co-op board, told the crowd on Thursday. “His smile. How much he enjoyed helping other people. At a time when so many gay people were filled with fear, Bayard used to remind me that change will come if you’re willing to fight for it.”
Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York city council, pointed out that the ceremony was taking place, appropriately, within sight of the Hopper-Gibbons House on West 29th Street, a way station on the Underground Railroad before the abolition of slavery. Partly because of Rustin’s example, Johnson said he became the first person in his Massachusetts high school to come out as gay in the 1990s. “Thanks to Bayard Rustin, the world is not as uncomfortable a place as it used to be,” Johnson said. “I stand here today literally on the shoulders of Bayard Rustin.”
Norman Hill, another civil rights warrior who worked with Rustin on organizing the March on Washington, recalled that Rustin was fond of asking a question: “If you don’t fight for yourself, who will?”
The speechifying done, Walter Naegle, Rustin’s longtime partner and still a resident of Penn South, stepped from the crowd. He pulled a string, and a cloth cover fell away, revealing the plaque that will stand forever on the grounds of Penn South. Alongside a sculptural rendering of Rustin are a recap of his astonishing life and this quotation from his writings: “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.”
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