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A Civil Rights Activist and the Café Society

While we look back and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s interesting to also note that one of his early influences and closest confidantes, Bayard Rustin, had a very close connection to Greenwich Village, especially the legendary club Café Society.

L: Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956; R: the two at an unknown later date

Bayard Rustin was a pioneering activist involved in the struggles for civil rights, socialism, non-violence, and gay rights.  In 1947 he helped initiate a freedom ride to combat racial segregation on interstate busing.  Early on Rustin recognized the strength of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership and helped organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King was the first president.  Rustin influenced countless other activists and organizations and was the chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.  After the passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964–1965, he turned his attention to gay rights (in 1953 he had been arrested for a “homosexual act”) and economic problems of working-class and unemployed African Americans.  Now, back to that Village connection….Bayard Rustin moved to Harlem in 1937 to study at the City College of New York.  He became very politically involved, joining the Young Communist League and the Religious Society of Friends (a Quaker group).  Singing was a passion of Rustin’s as he was an accomplished tenor vocalist.  In 1939 he participated in a short-lived Broadway musical called John Henry alongside fellow activists Paul Robeson and Josh White.   White put together a group called “Josh White and the Carolinians” and asked Rustin to be a member.  The group often played at the Café Society which exposed Bayard to the social, intellectual, and openly gay scene of the Village, of which he became a regular.

Image taken at the Cafe Society, courtesy of Josh White Jr.

The Café Society jazz nightclub opened in 1938 in the basement of 1 Sheridan Square by Barney Josephson as the first racially integrated club in the United States, in a predominantly white neighborhood nonetheless.  It also functioned as a political cabaret, modeled after those that Josephson had seen in Europe.  The name of the venue was a satirical play on words, as the club was intended to defy the conventions of the social elite.  It eventually received the nickname, “the wrong place for the Right people,” with the R purposely capitalized in yet another jab at conservatives.  A second branch  later opened on 58th Street.

Billie Holiday performing at the Cafe Society in 1939….one of the murals commissioned by Barney Josephson can be seen in the background

Priding itself on treating all races equally,  Café Society featured artists such as Lena Horne, Art Tatum, Big Joe Turner, and Sarah Vaughn, to name a few.  According to the website of the Axis Theater Company, which today occupies the space, “[Barney Josephson] invited neighborhood artists to paint murals on the walls in exchange for a $250 bar tab and he employed John Hammond, a jazz producer, to advise him in booking talent. Hammond worked closely with Josephson on his plans for the club and booked his opening night act, a relatively unknown singer called Bille Holiday. Recalling this night later in life, Holiday said, ‘I opened Cafe Society as an unknown, I left two years later a star’.”  The Café Society closed in 1950 (it later became the equally legendary Sheridan Theater), but the club’s ethos was perhaps best illustrated by Josephson, as quoted in his New York Times obituary: ”I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.”

From Left: the cover of Terry-Trilling Josephson’s memoir (she was Barney’s wife); Billie Holiday singing at the Cafe Society, where she first performed the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit”; Sarah Vaughn singing at the club

The open and accepting mantra of the Café Society was what drew Bayard Rustin in.  He went to parties with people he met there and enjoyed the fact that some were straight, some gay, some white, some black.  According to a biography by Daniel Levine, Rustin had a boyfriend who lived in a cooperative building on Bank Street where Rustin spent a lot of time.

Bayard Rustin with his partner Walter Naegle. They were together from 1977 until Rustin’s death in 1987.

Rustin’s legacy of activism  and accomplishment for economic and racial equality and gay civil rights is remembered all over the world, but the Village played a special role in shaping his character and facilitating his accomplishments.  Rustin lived his later years in Penn South Houses in Chelsea, a limited-equity non-profit cooperative built by unions, and following his death the public high school on West 17th Street, formerly known as the High School for the Humanities, was renamed in his honor.

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