Bayard Rustin was an American civil rights leader during the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous I Had a Dream speech. Little known today for his efforts in the fight for black rights, he was also openly gay.
Along with other factors, this fact limited his career in subtle ways. Rustin rarely acted as spokesperson when it came to public speeches. His part in the movement usually took place as a key adviser to civil rights leaders. His personal life came to the limelight when Rustin was arrested for homosexual activity in 1953, when sodomy was still criminalized.
Rustin's sexuality and public record was criticized by fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders. Rustin was attacked as an "immoral influence" by political opponents, from segregationists to black power activists throughout his career. He was forced to resign from organizations he once held positions in, but his importance in the movement didn’t deter. In 1956, he signed on to advise Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Gandhian-style tactics. King was organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott back then.
According to Rustin: ". . .I think it's fair to say that Dr. King's view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott began. . ."
Rustin promoted the philosophy of nonviolence and the practices of nonviolent resistance, which he had observed while working with Gandhi's movement in India. Rustin became a leading strategist of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1968.
Many black leaders were concerned that Rustin's sexual orientation would hurt support for the civil rights movement. Although Rustin was open about his sexuality, the events had not circulated as open discussion outside of civil rights leadership.
For those that are curious about Martin Luther King Jr.’s thoughts on the gay community, Bayard Rustin wrote about this in his 1987 speech:
“. . .It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would not have hired me. He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me. He was under such extraordinary pressure about his own sex life. J. Edgar Hoover was spreading stories, and there were very real efforts to entrap him. I think at a given point he had to reach a decision. My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King, but a problem for the movement. . .”
Bayard Rustin understood the pressures Dr. King was facing as a leading civil rights leader, and later stepped down to relieve him from added attacks on his personal life. For example, weeks before the Washington March in 1963, Senator Thurmond produced a Federal Bureau of Investigation photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing, to imply that there was a relationship between the two. Both men denied the allegation of an affair, yet opponents harassed them nonetheless.
Bayard Rustin came to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s defense however, and wrote further about it in his 1987 essay:
“. . .I don’t want you to think that Dr. King was the only civil rights leader who raised these questions. Although Dr. King had been relieved by my officially leaving, he continued to call on me as Mr. Garrow makes clear in his book, Bearing the Cross, over and over. Now this all took place around 1960; but in 1963 when the question came up whether I should be the director of the March on Washington, I got 100 percent cooperation. On this occasion, it was Roy Wilkins who raised the question. Roy was my friend. He told me he was going into the meeting to object.
He made it quite clear that he had absolutely no prejudice toward me or toward homosexuality; but he said: ‘I put the movement first above all things, and I believe it is my moral obligation to go into this meeting and say that with all of your talent, I don’t think you should lead this important march. They are not only going to raise the question of homosexuality. Although I know you are a Quaker and I know you paid a heavy price for your conscientious objection, they are going to call you a draft dodger.’”
His political associations with socialism, being anti-war, and gay were all factors that worked against him as a black rights activist in the 1960s. He worked behind the scenes, but was still an integral part of America’s history. After the passage of the civil rights legislation of 1964–65, Rustin focused attention on the economic problems of working-class and unemployed black Americans, suggesting that the civil-rights movement had left its period of protest and had entered an era of politics.
In the 1980s, he later became an outspoken advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes. He testified on behalf of New York State's Gay Rights Bill, and in 1986, he gave a speech where he asserted:
“. . .Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new ‘niggers’ are gays.... It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change.... The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people. . .”
On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In conclusion, it’s fair to say that Bayard Rustin wasn’t given the full recognition he deserved during his lifetime. Intersectional identities within a movement have a habit of being pushed aside, but these people exist. Their identities should be celebrated, and acknowledged in our history books.
Without Bayard Rustin, the struggle for civil rights would have unfolded much differently in history. The same idea goes for our current LGBTQ movement. Without Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera, both transgender women of color who fought in the front lines at the 1969 Stonewall Riots, where would history have ended up?
Bayard Rustin represents a voice who, had he the opportunities to live without respectability politics taking a toll on his career, could have been remembered more widely in history. Bayard Rustin, we swear to you: you will be remembered. You will not be silenced, and you actions have shaped our country without a doubt. Rest in power.
K. Mathias is a local South Florida high school student, a self-described hippie, and theatre geek. Mathias is also an activist for social justice, environmental science, and the LGBTQ plus movement. Mathias encourages all to support the initiative to protect our environment.