>LGBT History Month: Bayard Rustin


There are some who might say Bayard Rustin was born to fight injustice, and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with them. He lived his life by five simple rules, and remained unbowed by the indignities hurled at him.

As a Black man, and a gay man, he knew first-hand about being treated as “less than,” as someone many people would think didn’t matter, as as undesirable. But Bayard Rustin didn’t worry about what others thought, he worried and worked for what was right, for African-Americans, the LGBT community, and any group he thought suffered at the hands of those in power. One of the key African-American civil rights activists of the last century, Rustin’s legacy has sadly been obscured over alleged embarrassment of his homosexuality and his early involvement in the Communist Party.

Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a largely Quaker town that had played an important role in the underground railroad. He was raised by his devoutly Quaker grandmother, Julia, who was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP]. In her home, with visitors like W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, along with the town’s history of anti-slavery activity, Rustin soon learned to stand up for himself, for African-Americans, and for all people who suffered indignities for reasons of race, or gender or sexual orientation.

A talented singer, Rustin moved to New York in 1931 where he performed with blues singer Josh White, in cafes and clubs all over New York. He became a regular performer at the Café Society nightclub in in Greenwich Village, which widened his social and intellectual contacts, helping him continue on his lifelong journey of activism.

Rustin became a member of the American Friends Service Committee, and joined the Communist Party of the United States of America [CPUSA], travelling the country to protest war and fascism, to speak out about social injustice. However, at the start of World War II, the Communist Party turned away from domestic issues and pressured Rustin to stop his work fighting racial injustice, and when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered the CPUSA to abandon all civil rights work and focus only on support for U.S. involvement in the war. Rustin felt betrayed by the CPUSA, and, as a consequence, he left the party and became critical of it, a stance that he would maintain for the rest of his life.

In 1941, Rustin met A. Philip Randolph, an African-American labor leader, and A.J. Muste, the director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation [FOR], a pacifist organization; the three men organized the 1941 African-American March on Washington. Working with FOR over the next decade, Rustin developed programs that focused on race relations, leading to the creation of the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE].

Bayard Rustin didn’t hide his disdain for racism, or segregation, or for the Communist party’s shift in policy. He also didn’t hide his homosexuality, and it was often overlooked because of his discretion, and the work he was doing for the African-American community.

However, in 1953, a public scandal undermined his authority and hindered his career for many years. While in California, to speak to a group about FOR, Bayard Rustin was discovered by police in a car with two other men. He was arrested and charged with lewd conduct, vagrancy and sexual perversion–as consensual sex between men was labeled at that time. He spent two months in jail and, as word of his “crime” spread, he was dismissed from his position with FOR.

But the arrest, and the ensuing shame, didn’t stop Rustin from working for equality. After his ouster from FOR, he joined the staff of the War Resisters League, where he worked with southern blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, to boycott city buses and end segregation in public transportation. It was in Alabama that he met Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rustin’s credentials impressed the civil rights leader, but there was concern that his past ties to the Communist Party, as well as his arrest in California, might overshadow Dr. King’s work, and tarnish the movement’s reputation. But Bayard Rustin wouldn’t give up, eventually became one of King’s closest advisers, and heavily influenced him in the ways of nonviolent civil disobedience. Rustin and King worked together to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC], which they hoped would further the use of nonviolent civil rights protests in the South.

In 1960, as Rustin was helping King lead a protest outside of the Democratic National Convention, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell pressured King to call off the protest, threatening to accuse Rustin and King of having a homosexual affair. Sadly, King gave in to Powell, and Rustin resigned from King’s staff, dvastated by Powell’s ruthlessness and by what he saw as King’s betrayal. Still, he cntinued to advise Dr. King and once again became a major player in the formation of the 1963 March on Washington, though, once again, the fact that Bayard Rustin was a gay man, would be used to undermine his commintment to the struggle.

South Carolina Senator, and segregationist, Strom Thurmond tried to discredit the 1963 march because it was organized by a “communist, draft dodger, and homosexual;” Thurmond even went so far as to produce an FBI photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing, to imply that there was a sexual relationship between Rustin and King. The two men denied the allegation, but the damage was done; despite King’s support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins saw to it that Bayard Rustin received no credit for his work organizing the march.

The actions of these men–Powell, Thurmond, and Wilkins–while horrendous, didn’t dissuade Rustin from his work; in fact, the allegation against him only emboldened him. He was appointed chairman of the A. P. Randolph Institute, a liberal think tank; he openly protested the Vietnam War at a time when few were doing so, and became active in the gay rights movement. In the 70s, Bayard Rustin served on the board of trustees of the University of Notre Dame, worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House, and testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill.

In 1986, he gave a speech called “The New N_____s Are Gays,” in which 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 “n_____s” 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 died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. A New York Times obituary said, “Looking back at his career, Mr. Rustin, a Quaker, once wrote:
‘The principal factors which influenced my life are
1) nonviolent tactics;
2) constitutional means;
3) democratic procedures;
4) respect for human personality;
5) a belief that all people are one.'”

Words to live by; an example set.

The march goes on.

On This Day In LGBT History

October 26, 1990 – A U.S. Army colonel was discharged and sentenced to 90 days in Leavenworth for appearing in drag at an AIDS benefit and kissing another man.
October 26, 1992 – Portland Oregon police chief Tom Potter testified before a state senate committee, saying many victims of anti-gay assaults do not report the crimes because of fear that their identities will be made public.


Filed under Bayard Rustin, LGBT, LGBT History Month

2 responses to “>LGBT History Month: Bayard Rustin

  1. >Bob, I'm delighted to see Bayard Rustin in your post for GLBTQ history month, since he was largely ignored and marginalized during his life. You honor him well here. He was a beautiful soul in so many ways and as you know he meant a great deal to me as someone to draw strength, purpose, and perspective from. My hope is that the factors which touched and shaped his life will empower and inspire others. May his legacy live on until justice is truly for all and equality is as abundant as water is on our planet.

  2. >Excellent post on Mr. Baryard Rustin. It is important we continue to remind people that he let his light shine in this world.

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