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As a politically active black man in 1950s and 1960s, Bayard Rustin had, in addition to his race, three strikes against him: he was a pacifist; he was a Communist; and he was openly homosexual. Read more about this remarkable civil rights worker below.

The Gay Man Who Organized the 1963 March on Washington

BAYARD RUSTIN: THE GAY MAN WHO
ORGANIZED THE 1963 MARCH ON WASHINGTON

By Nick Gier. Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (ngier@uidaho.edu)

As a politically active black man in 1950s and 1960s, Bayard Rustin had, in addition to his race, three strikes against him: he was a pacifist; he was a Communist; and he was openly homosexual.

In 1936 Rustin became a member of the Young Communist League, but he broke with the party when it decided to deemphasize civil rights in favor of supporting the Soviet Union in the war.

During World War II he began his long association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization founded in 1914 by an English Quaker and a German Lutheran. His grandmother, who raised him, was a Quaker, but she and her grandson attended a local African Methodist Episcopal Church.

From 1944 to 1946 Rustin served 28 months in a federal penitentiary for refusing to report for military service. While in prison he worked diligently to end segregation in the prison dining hall.

Rustin was an all-inclusive civil rights worker. He traveled to California to protect the property of Japanese Americans who had been interned during the war. While in prison he established the FOR’s Free India Committee, and he later convinced Martin Luther King, Jr. to follow Gandhi’s principle of active nonviolence.

In 1947 Rustin led a FOR attempt to integrate the interstate bus system. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he and his associates were set upon by a mob, but it was he, rather than his attackers, who served 22 days of hard labor for “inciting” this incident.

In 1953 he was arrested for having sex with two other men. Thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision decriminalizing sodomy, no one can be arrested for consensual sex of any sort in today’s America. The Texas law that was truck down was particularly discriminatory in that it did not outlaw “unnatural” sex acts between heterosexuals.

Because of the gay sex charge, Rustin was fired from the FOR staff. Even though under this dark cloud, King nonetheless took him on as an adviser in 1956. As a seasoned civil rights worker, his experience was crucial to the success of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Rustin biographer John D’Emilio writes that Rustin “was the perfect mentor for King at this stage in the young minister’s career. . . and in the ensuing months and years, Rustin left a profound mark on the evolution of King’s role as a national leader.”

Rustin convinced King that he needed a permanent organization to stabilize his movement, so together they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to expose him as a gay man, Rustin was forced to resign his SCLC leadership position.

Working behind the scenes, Rustin was the main organizer for the 1963 March of Washington, the venue for King’s “I have a Dream” speech. The other organizers made sure that Rustin was not given any public credit for this historic event.

Supplied with FBI wire tap information and dirt from segregationist legislators, Senator Strom Thurmond gave a speech in the Senate in which he called Rustin a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual.”

For the very first time someone came to Rustin’s defense. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph attested to Rustin’s integrity, and the fact that Thurmond’s attack fizzled produced a glimmer of hope that equal rights for gays and lesbians might be possible.

Rustin advised King not to speak out against the Vietnam war, but King did it anyway. Friends were puzzled why this fervent pacifist did not join the anti-war movement. His response was that he was against a precipitous withdrawal of troops because the Communists would set up a brutal dictatorship.

Rustin also reminded his supporters where his duty ultimately lay: “To those who have urged me to switch from civil rights to peace, let me say: Someday, God help us, this war will be over, and my job is to help see to it that when the black soldiers come home, they will have something decent to come home to.” Rustin preferred to keep his “eyes on the prize.”

Rustin’s last civil rights battle was for his gay brother and sisters: “The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it’s the gay community, the community which is most easily mistreated.”

Nick Gier taught philosophy and religion at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his other civil rights columns at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/civil.htm, /equality, and /ColorSkin.htm.

About Nick Gier

Comments

  1. Mike Martinez says:

    Like Harvey Milk, pioneers and heros such as this need to be remebered. They are our role models, and should inspire us to greater activity and outspokeness.

  2. Peterson Toscano says:

    I appreciate you raising the awareness of this amazing man who for too long has been hidden from our eyes.

    What too often happens in the US is that ONE hero emerges both in our history and our movies. This one larger than life figure looms over us as an example of what one man can do.

    But what about the women and the men working alongside of that man? What about the people who went before that man opening the ways, building a movement? What about someone like Bayard Rustin, brilliant, vital to the movement, but also openly gay in a time and place when that rarely happened? History, the media and our own deeply ingrained concept of heroes erase or cover over the contributions of someone like Bayard Rustin.

    Thank you for telling more of the story.

  3. john emery istvan says:

    It’s great to see that Bayard Rustin is also being remembered and recognized. It’s just so damn easy to sit back and be invisible. His life work can be an inspiration for so many of us to accept our responsibility to make change happen now and in the future.

    Come out, come out, wherever you are.