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Harmony Honors Ousted Gay Civil-Rights Organizer Bayard Rustin

Hazel Miller, left, and Bill Loper in rehearsal for Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream.
Hazel Miller, left, and Bill Loper in rehearsal for Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream.
Carol Coffey

Bayard Rustin was an openly gay, communist civil-rights activist and the main organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Still, few know Rustin's name or story.

On Saturday, February 3, Denver's gay chorus, Harmony: A Chorale, will be bringing Rustin's legacy to life through a choral work titled Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream.

Bill Loper, artistic director of Harmony, says, “I’ve been a teacher for just over thirty years, with Harmony Chorale for fifteen, and this is hands down the best thing I’ve ever done.”

In part, that's because the central character's life was so compelling — and tragic. Leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a major organizing body behind the fight to end segregation, forced Rustin to step down in 1960, partly as a result of his 1953 arrest in California for "crimes against nature." Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who was on the SCLC board, threatened to spread rumors that Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. were lovers if Rustin did not quit the SCLC. Rustin's ouster is a wart on the civil-rights organization's legacy.

Loper says this forgotten history — and Rustin's work in the civil-rights movement — must be brought to light.

“I’ve been passing out cards, fliers and posters. Everywhere I go, I’ll ask the people if they know who Bayard Rustin is, and nineteen out of twenty people do not," Loper says.

Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream was written by Steve Milloy, artistic director of the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus. Jane Ramseyer Miller, artistic director of the One Voice Mixed Chorus in Minneapolis, commissioned Milloy to compose the work, and it premiered last year.

The show spans Rustin’s life, from when he was a high school student coming out to his grandmother up until his death. The music is diverse, covering a variety of genres, from blues to tango, quaker hymns to rap. Legendary Colorado singer Hazel Miller is performing with her band in the show. Miller, who has been singing professionally for more than forty years, notes that the opportunity to work on a piece like this is one-of-a-kind.

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“It is difficult yet spellbinding,” Miller says of the work. “From a performer’s point of view, it's moving, it’s intelligent, and it’s one of those opportunities that singers — we don’t get many opportunities to do a piece like this.”

For Miller, The Man Behind the Dream provides an opportunity to reflect on our country’s past and channel it into a productive future.

“Can you imagine [if] the movement you gave birth to was kicking you out?” Miller asks. "From the point of view of an African-American woman in America today, if we don’t know our past, we have no way to get to the future. And [Rustin] gave everything to move America to change. And right now, it is my humble opinion that we are moving backwards in terms of race relations and women’s rights, and this work will stimulate people’s imaginations to realize that we have to work as individuals so people don’t lose sight!”

Harmony presents Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 3, Central Presbyterian Church, 1660 Sherman Street, 303-839-5500, $20 to $50.

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