There is one clear and unequivocal reason that you have probably not heard of Bayard Rustin: he was gay. Though Rustin was active in the Civil Rights movement well before Martin Luther King, Jr. was around, he was often shuffled out of the limelight by his own co-workers. In the 1977 book My Soul is Rested, Howell Raines described Rustin this way: “He is white-haired, a man of elegant diction, an old lion of the Movement, and he was the first of the Eastern civil-rights professionals to discover the young preacher in Montgomery.”
Born in Pennsylvania in 1912 to an absent father and a teenage mother, Bayard Rustin’s beginnings were inauspicious. He was raised by his grandparents, who were Quakers. After graduating from high school then attending various colleges, Rustin went to New York City and, while there, joined the Young Communists League, which led to involvement in civil rights organizing in the 1940s and ’50s. During this period, he worked with A. Philip Randolph, joined the Fellowship for Reconciliation, was one of the founders of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and helped later to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Dr. King.
It was Bayard Rustin’s commitment to nonviolence, though, that may be his most important contribution to the movement. In his oral history in My Soul is Rested, Rustin claimed that it was he who convinced Martin Luther King, Jr. to embrace nonviolence. (He said that there were “armed guards” at King’s house when Rustin first met him.)
Bayard Rustin was also one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. Though the event was envisioned by Randolph, and though it was King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that is most remembered, it was Rustin who “guided the organization of an event that would bring over 200,000 participants to the nation’s capital.”
Rustin continued to be active in civil rights causes throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Later, in the 1980s, he was prominent in the cause of gay rights as well. Though he died in 1987, Bayard Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 by President Barack Obama.
About Rustin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote:
Yet of all the leaders of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin lived and worked in the deepest shadows, not because he was a closeted gay man, but because he wasn’t trying to hide who he was. That, combined with his former ties to the Community Party, was considered to be a liability.
The common conception is that those in the Civil Rights movement struggled against oppressors and bigots, but Bayard Rustin also had to struggle against those with whom he worked. To know more about Bayard Rustin, there is a collection of his writings titled Time on Two Crosses, as well as the documentary Brother Outsider. His work is continued to today by the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Princeton, New Jersey.
Further reading/listening: “In Newly Found Audio, A Forgotten Civil Rights Leader Says Coming Out “Was An Absolute Necessity” on NPR, January 6, 2019
The Disrupters & Interlopers series highlights lesser-known individuals from Southern history whose actions, though unpopular or difficult, contributed to changing the old status quo. To read previous posts, click any of the links below: