Did you know that the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington was not Martin Luther King, Jr., but rather Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man?
Two decades after his death, Bayard Rustin, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement, is all but forgotten. A long time aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s, suggested to King the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Today, few people know about him because of his sexual orientation.
Rustin was born into a Quaker family in 1912. He was an integral part of the African-American civil rights movement, and one of the leading advocates of pacifism and passive resistance. Rustin became active in the civil rights movement when he moved to Harlem and began studying at City College of New York. He became a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) where, at age 25, he joined the American Friends Service Committee. Here got involved in efforts to defend and free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men in Alabama who were accused of raping two white women.
That same year he joined the Communist Party and organized the Youth Communist League. In the 1930s the Communist Party USA was a strong supporter of the African-American civil rights movement. However, in 1941 Joseph Stalin ordered the CPUSA to abandon its civil rights work and focus on supporting U.S. entry into World War II. Thus Rustin, who was a pacifist, became disillusioned with communism. He began working with anti-communist socialists such as Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He then became Race Relations Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Although Rustin had quit the Youth Communist League and become anti-communist, LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson would, in the 1960s, accuse Martin Luther King, Jr. of being a communist and associating with communists because of Rustin. Segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina similarly denounced Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger and homosexual.”
In 1942, Rustin assisted George Houser, James L. Farmer, Jr. and activist Bernice Fisher as they formed the Congress of Racial Equality. Although Rustin was not a direct founder, he was referred to as “an uncle of CORE.” As declared pacifists, Rustin and other members of CORE and FOR were arrested for violating the Selective Service Act. Rustin was imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for two years, where he organized protests against segregated dining facilities.
After being released, Rustin helped organize the Journey of Reconciliation’s “freedom rides” in 1947. These Freedom Rides were done to test a Supreme Court ruling of Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, which banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. On this ride, Rustin was arrested for violating Jim Crow laws that mandated segregated seating on public transportation. He then served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina. His experiences there were chronicled in the New York Post and initiated an investigation that eliminated chain gangs in North Carolina.
CORE was conceived as a pacifist organization based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau and modeled after Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent resistance against British rule in India. In 1948, Rustin traveled to India and learned nonviolence techniques directly from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. The conference had been organized before Gandhi’s assassination earlier that year.
Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, Calif., in 1953, for homosexual activity. Charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of “sex perversion” and served 60 days in jail. This was the first time that Rustin’s homosexuality had come to public attention even though he had been, and remained, candid about his sexuality. After his conviction, he was fired from FOR. He then put his energy in the War Resisters League.
Rustin took leave from the War Resisters League in 1956 to advise Martin Luther King, Jr. on Gandhian tactics. At that time, King was organizing the public transportation boycott in Montgomery, Ala. known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The following year, Rustin and King began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Rustin, however, was considered a liability by many civil rights leaders who were concerned that his homosexuality and his past Communist membership would undermine support for the movement. U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was a member of the SCLC’s board, forced Rustin’s resignation from the SCLC in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin’s “morals charge” in Congress. And despite his friend King’s support, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chairman Roy Wilkins did not want Rustin to receive any public credit for his role in planning the march even though Rustin served as the deputy director and chief organizer.
A year before his death in 1987, Rustin testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill. In a speech before the New York legislators, 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.”
Rustin wrote several essays, recorded songs and received numerous honorary doctorates while continuing his involvement as an officer on numerous human rights committees. He was survived by his partner of 10 years, Walter Naegle.