Bayard Rustin was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. When he died in 1987, The New York Times referred to Rustin as a “pacifist and civil rights activist who was a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 New York school boycott.” The obituary went on to say:
Mr. Rustin’s career ranged from such activities as having organized the first Freedom Ride, which was then called a Journey of Reconciliation, in 1947, to a role in the Free India movement before the subcontinent gained its independence from Britain, to involvement in antinuclear demonstrations in England and North Africa and to serving as an aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Rustin once described his militant activity this way: ”I believe in social dislocation and creative trouble.”
…a master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin … best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.
According to Rustin’s profile on Biography.com, Rustin and King met in the 1950s, during which time Rustin impressed upon King Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.
What’s his connection to LGBTQ+ issues and history?
He was gay, and openly gay at a time when it was not common — or necessarily safe — to be open about one’s orientation. As Joe Leydon wrote when reviewing “Brother Outsider” for Variety:
He was openly and unashamedly gay at a time when even many nominally progressive activists of all colors were reflexively homophobic. To prevent his sexuality from becoming an issue that might undermine his noble causes, he remained scrupulously circumspect, maintaining a deliberately low profile while working in King’s shadow.
In January 2019, the podcast “Making Gay History” aired previously unaired audio of Rustin from an interview with the Washington Blade in the mid-1980s in which he said:
At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him.
Did he stop working with King?
He didn’t, but as Leydon and others pointed out, he kept a “deliberately low profile.” In a 2013 article for The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote about how Rustin’s homosexuality was sometimes weaponized against him and King:
Rustin experienced one of the lowest points in his career in 1960, and the author of this crisis wasn’t J. Edgar Hoover; it was another black leader. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, angry that Rustin and King were planning a march outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, warned King that if he did not drop Rustin, Powell would tell the press King and Rustin were gay lovers. Regardless of the fact that Powell had concocted the charge for his own malicious reasons, King, in one of his weaker moments, called off the march and put distance between himself and Rustin, who reluctantly resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by King. For that King “lost much moral credit … in the eyes of the young,” the writer James Baldwin wrote in Harper’s magazine. Fortunately for us, Rustin put the movement ahead of this vicious personal slight.
The movement’s leaders ended up coming around on Rustin’s sexuality, and Rustin’s biographer John D’Emilio suggested Strom Thurmond was partly responsible. In 1963, ahead of the March on Washington, the conservative Thurmond took to the Senate floor, where he disparaged Rustin for being a draft-dodger, a Communist, and a “homosexual.” D’Emilio was quoted by NPR in 2013 as saying, “Because no one could appear to be on the side of Strom Thurmond, he created, unwittingly, an opportunity for Rustin’s sexuality to stop being an issue.”
Was there any bad blood between Rustin and civil rights leaders over his homosexuality?
Not “bad blood” necessarily, but Rustin did say in the Washington Blade interview that appeared on “Making Gay History” that he wished the leadership — including King — had shown the “strength” earlier:
I took the position that if people feel that I am a danger to some important movement, I would leave. But the thing which distressed me was that if… if Martin had taken the strong stand then that he took a year later, in ’63, vis-à-vis Strom Thurmond, he could have overcome it and kept me. But I understand his doing it, and I hold no grief with him about having done it. I just wish that he had shown the strength in ’62 that he showed when he backed me completely in ’63. But he was a year older, and had another year’s experience.
If I’ve learned anything it is that people, by helping others who are also in trouble, grow in strength to help themselves—that a new psychological and spiritual element is brought to bear.
So Rustin wasn’t ever in the closet?
If he was, he wasn’t for very long, as reports suggest just the opposite was true. He was open about a variety of things, even if it meant he’d be punished, as reported in his profile on Biography.com:
During the war, he was jailed for two years when he refused to register for the draft. When he took part in protests against the segregated public transit system in 1947, he was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks. In 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge for publicly engaging in homosexual activity and was sent to jail for 60 days; however, he continued to live as an openly gay man.
NPR, writing about the Washington Blade interview audio from the ’80s, said Rustin saw his identity as a black man connected to his identity as a gay man:
It occurred to me… that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice… I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.
Was he only working with black civil rights leaders? Or did he ever work with LGBTQ+ activists?
Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner, told The Root that Rustin wanted to be more involved but that his age was seen as an issue:
“Remember that phrase, ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’?” Naegle said in an interview with The Root. “At the time of the Stonewall protests, the leaders of the gay alliance were young people, for the most part. Bayard was almost 60 at the time.” Rustin, at Naegle’s urging, did speak at gay events and wrote letters in support of the cause.
If Rustin was in “the shadows” while he was alive, how did his legacy grow and spread after his death?
Naegle, Rustin’s surviving partner, has helped tell Rustin’s story in interviews with news outlets. The documentary “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin” helped bring his story to new audiences. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that in 2002, members of Atlanta’s black and LGBTQ+ communities wanted to spread awareness about Rustin’s life, so they began an annual tradition with the Bayard Rustin Breakfast. In later years, the event also honored Audre Lorde.
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