Bayard Rustin was an indispensable force behind the Civil Rights Movement…and openly gay.
While King spoke as the face of the civil rights movement, another man stood behind the scenes, an indispensable force within the movement. He was Bayard Rustin, a man whose life was shaped by the very prejudices the movement fought against, not only because of his race, but also because he was gay. Rustin would spend his life fighting for the rights of others, even while facing discrimination of his own.
To the hundreds of thousands who were bused to Washington for the march, Rustin was synonymous with the movement. After all, he was the march’s chief organizer. “Rustin [organized] this march in an eight-week period, without cell phones, without email, without faxes. So he and his team [were] working the phones hard, they [were] typing letters constantly,” says Michael G. Long, editor of I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters and co-author of Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist. “From what I hear, the headquarters was in sheer chaos all the time. And Rustin thrived in an environment like that.”
It’s no surprise that Rustin was able to find composure in chaos. Born in 1912 and raised by his grandparents in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin learned Quaker values of nonviolence and peace from an early age. His confidence in those beliefs and in himself were reinforced by his grandmother, Julia Rustin, who affirmed his sexuality—a response that was nearly unheard of at the time. “According to Bayard, she wasn’t concerned so much about him dating men, she was more concerned about the men that he chose,” Long explains.
In 1937, Rustin went to City College of New York, where he joined the Young Communist League because he was attracted to the league’s progressive views on racial issues. But when the group’s focus shifted with the start of World War II to supporting the Soviet Union as opposed to racial injustice in the U.S., Rustin left the organization. Rustin was staunchly against the war, and would be arrested and jailed in 1944 as a “conscientious objector” after refusing to register for the draft.
After leaving the group, Rustin shifted his attention to socialism, joining the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in 1941. The group, led at the time by A.J. Muste, advocated for peace, labor rights and equality for all people—unless those people were gay.
In 1953, after more than 10 years and numerous arrests while working with FOR, Rustin was fired from his position as secretary for student and general affairs when he was arrested in Pasadena, California, for having sex with another man in a parked car and charged with “sex perversion.” It was one of many times that his sexuality would be used against him.
But the experience with FOR wasn’t for nothing. It was through his interest in socialism that Rustin met his mentor, A. Philip Randolph. In 1941, Rustin, along with Randolph and Muste, had proposed a March on Washington to combat the discrimination of black workers in the defense department. Before the march could come to fruition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that opened up the defense industry to black workers—but the bond between Rustin and Randolph would last for decades.
In fact, it was Randolph who persuaded Rustin to meet with King in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, to show support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A young King would be forever changed after his encounter with Rustin.
“Dr. King had read Gandhi, but at that point he hadn’t accepted pacifism as a way of life. And so when Rustin arrived in Montgomery, Dr. King’s home was full of guns,” Long explains. “It was Bayard Rustin, and a few other pacifists, who really encouraged Dr. King to accept pacifism as a way of life.”
At the urging of Rustin, pacifism and nonviolence would become cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement. But the meeting would mark the beginning of a long, sometimes tenuous relationship between the two.
When they met, King was aware of Rustin’s sexual orientation, and of Rustin’s 1953 arrest on a morals charge. However, Rustin showcased brilliant strategies and organization skills—areas where King, while a rousing speaker and a strong leader, wasn’t as strong. So Rustin’s sexual orientation was overlooked—at least for the time being.
Rustin was a part of King’s inner circle as the Civil Rights Movement grew in the 1950s, but others considered him a liability. Tensions came to a head, and the worst fears of civil rights activists were realized at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.
Randolph, King, and Rustin had begun arrangements to march at the Democratic National Convention of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his running mate Lyndon B. Johnson in Los Angeles, protesting the party’s lackluster position on civil rights. In response, Democratic leadership sent black congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stop the march before it happened. And he used Rustin’s sexual orientation as his weapon.
Prior to the convention, Powell sent an intermediary to threaten King, telling him that if they proceeded with the march, he would accuse King of having an affair with Rustin, not only killing the march but also dealing a possibly fatal blow to the movement as a whole.
After consulting with his colleagues and advisors, including his close confidante, advisor and speech writer, Clarence Jones, King decided to distance himself from Rustin. Rustin’s reluctant resignation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference marked one of few times that King lost a battle to fear.
“It was a personally painful situation for him, I think, because he was disappointed that Dr. King didn’t stand up for him or didn’t have more backbone,” says Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner at the time of his death in 1987. “But, in all fairness to Dr. King and to Bayard, Bayard understood that this was a political move and it was probably better for Dr. King to do what he did politically speaking, in terms of the movement.”
In response to Powell’s threat, Jones fought fire with fire. He told Powell if he went to the media with the fabricated rumor about King, he would litter Harlem, the district that Powell represented, with posters and pictures of all of the women that Powell had slept with. The threat worked, and King proceeded to protest the 1960 Democratic Convention, with Rustin as the sole casualty.
Rustin continued his work with Randolph on civil rights issues, outside of the umbrella of the SCLC. During the years that Rustin wasn’t involved in organizing marches, protests and demonstrations, from 1960 to 1963, the movement saw little progress. King recognized that the movement so many had sacrificed their lives for was losing steam, and slowly reintegrated Rustin during the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. This way, when the March on Washington—a proposal made by Randolph the year prior—would start to take shape, Rustin would already be involved.
Unfortunately for Rustin, detractors from within the movement still opposed his involvement. When it was proposed that Rustin organize a re-envisioned version of the March on Washington that had been canceled 20 years prior, Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, was adamantly opposed.
“I know you’re a Quaker, but that’s not what I’ll have to defend. I’ll have to defend draft dodging. I’ll have to defend promiscuity,” Wilkins argued, according to The Guardian. “The question is never going to be homosexuality, it’s going to be promiscuity, and I can’t defend that. And the fact is that you were a member of the Young Communist League. And I don’t care what you say, I can’t defend that.”
Wilkins had a point. With Rustin at the helm of the March on Washington, they were sure to encounter these questions. But there was no one better suited to make the march the historic event that it was intended to be. So, King and John Lewis, a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at the time, came up with a plan.
Instead of directly involving Rustin, King and Lewis held a caucus to nominate Randolph to lead the march. Randolph, a respected figure in the movement, wouldn’t garner opposition from others.
“But King and Lewis also knew that if Randolph became the official director of the march, he would appoint Bayard as his deputy,” says Long. “And Bayard would really be the one who would lead the march.”
So, with Randolph as the director and Rustin as his deputy, arrangements for the march were underway. And once again, Rustin’s past and personal life were used to try and stop the movement. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina brought nationwide media attention to Bayard after claiming that the march was being organized by “Communist, draft-dodger and homosexual.”
But it would seem that the impact of what was once the movement’s Achilles’ heel had lost its effectiveness. Not only did King come out in support of Rustin when questioned by the media, all of the leaders within the movement did. Even Wilkins put his reservations aside for the sake of progress.
The march went on to be more successful than anyone could’ve imagined, and marked a turning point for both the country and for Rustin.
“It came at the end of a summer of terror in the South. The assassination of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham fire hoses and dogs. There was a lot of discouragement and frustration,” Naegle recalls. “Along came the March on Washington, and I think it really re-energized people, inspired them, lifted up their hope again and renewed the spirit.”
Following the success of the march, Rustin and King would continue to work together for years. Although their views still clashed from time to time.
While planning the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, Rustin questioned the effectiveness of the demonstration. He supported the idea of fighting for the impoverished people of the country, but he wasn’t sure of the timing and worried it could lead to violence in already struggling communities. He voiced his opinions publicly, leading to King harboring feelings of betrayal.
Rustin was, once again, ousted from King’s planning process. But after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Rustin agreed to fly from Memphis to help lead the campaign in King’s absence. However, with leadership within the movement opposed to his involvement, Rustin withdrew his agreement.
Rustin would continue his role in activism, speaking at events for gay rights in the 1980s. It was also during this time, the last years of his life, that Rustin gave an interview with the Washington Blade, recalling the duality of being both black and gay in the Civil Rights Movement and how that shaped his refusal to hide his sexual orientation.
One moment in particular helped motivate his decision to be open about his sexuality. After walking towards the back of a bus in the 1940s during the Jim Crow South, a white child reached up to touch his tie, only to be stopped by their mother. She scolded her child and told them not to touch Rustin or anyone who looked like him, hurling a slur his way in the process.
“If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, ‘They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.’,” Rustin said in the interview, which was released in early 2019 via the podcast Making Gay History.
“It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice,” he continued. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”
Rustin died on August 24, 1987, but his fight for nonviolence lived on among the countless people inspired by the 1963 March on Washington. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his unyielding career in civil rights activism.