Bayard Rustin, a gay African-American who made no attempt to conceal his sexual orientation in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, when homosexuality was a crime, is probably the greatest “should-be” civil rights icon you might not have heard of. He would have turned 100 years old on March 17.
In 1942, 13 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, Rustin was arrested and beaten for sitting in the second row of a bus bound from Louisville to Nashville.
Also in 1942, Rustin assisted in the formation of the Congress of Racial Equality, a pacifist organization based on the teachings of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. He spent 1944-46 in federal prison for refusing to be drafted into the military.
In 1947, Rustin was instrumental in organizing the “Journey of Reconciliation,” the first of the “Freedom Rides” designed to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision banning racial segregation in interstate transportation.
Rustin is also widely regarded as an early mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “In John D’Emilio’s award-winning 2003 book Lost Profit: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, John writes about how in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, Bayard Rustin first met with the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a new arrival in Montgomery, and who was the spokesman for the newly formed group called the Montgomery Improvement Association that coordinated the sustained Montgomery bus boycott that everyone knows due to Rosa Parks,” Mandy Carter, National Black Justice Coalition co-founder and NBJC Leadership Advisory Councilmember of the Bayard Rustin Centennial Project, said in an email interview with Frontiers. “Bayard was one of the early-on people to be in contact with Dr. King to introduce to him the concepts of Gandhian nonviolence philosophy and nonviolent direct action,” including “marches, walks, boycotts, fasts, nonviolent civil disobedience, sit-ins with jail ... lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, etc.”
Public awareness of Rustin’s homosexuality “was a primary reason for why he was all but left out of the history books,” according to Carter. In 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena “by two police officers who caught him with two men in the backseat of a car performing oral sex,” she says. “All three were arrested for lewd vagrancy. And Rustin’s world began to unravel. And, on more than a few occasions, this arrest would be used against [him].”
For example, Rustin was instrumental in organizing Dr. King’s August1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. But several weeks before the event, Republican South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond had Rustin’s Pasadena arrest record entered into the Congressional record and insinuated that Rustin and King were lovers.
Attacks like this did not deter Rustin; he remained involved in civil rights struggles, including the LGBT movement, until his death in 1987. In fact, he “had been asked to speak at the October 11, 1987, March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. But, sadly, he died before it took place,” Carter says.
In 1986, Rustin testified in favor of a gay rights bill in New York. “Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change,” Rustin said. “Blacks are in every segment of society, and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. ... [G]ay 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.”
A 2003 film about Rustin, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize nominee and the recipient of more than 25 awards and honors, “has been shown at the United Nations, the Kennedy Center and for members of Congress, as well as at hundreds of schools, community forums, labor gatherings, faith organizations and film festivals,” according to the Rustin website, Rustin.org.
“[E]ven in our own LGBT communities (people of color and non-people of color), we don’t know who [Rustin] is and [we] should know about his history of activism,” Carter says. “Bayard was about intersectional organizing on fundamental issues of equality and justice” and “was also an out, black, gay man.” Carter says she often ends her “speaking gigs with a rhetorical question for our LGBT movement”—“[A]re we about justice or are we about just us?”
Asked how Rustin should be remembered, Carter cites the back cover of the Brother Outsider DVD: “Bayard Rustin was a visionary activist and strategist who has been called ‘the invisible man’ of the civil rights movement. A tireless crusader for justice, a disciple of Gandhi, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard dared to live as an openly gay man during the fiercely homophobic 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Rustin paid a price for his honesty, that includes the setbacks and triumphs of his remarkable 60-year career through both his public and private lives.”
A host of events nationwide, listed at Rustin.org/100 and compiled by Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle, will honor Rustin’s 100th birthday.
One of Rustin’s better-known quotes perhaps best sums up his legacy: “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”
For more photos and video of Rustin, click over to LGBT POV.