Written by A. Miller (They/Them)
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“...The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people...”
Black. Gay. Activist. During an era when segregation and severe homophobia began rearing its ugly head in the U.S, an era when the AIDS crisis was just beginning to shake the world at its core Bayard Rustin was in the trenches fighting first for the civil rights of his fellow African American brothers and sisters, and later: the lesbian and gay community. Although Rustin faced harsh criticisms and scrutiny for his identity, his [queer] intervention concerned more than just the iconic mass march on Washington as he was an advocate and often silent leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence and gay rights. A man at the intersection of black and queer, devoted his life with purpose unlike any I’ve ever seen.
Born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania it would seem that Rustin’s early life was a bit complicated. Having no relationship with his father, Archie Hopkins, for most of his childhood, he was brought up to believe that his maternal grandparents (Janifer and Julia (Davis)) were his biological parents and subsequently that his 16-year-old mother, Florence Rustin, was actually his sister, as she was so young. It is not known if his mother and father gave birth to any more children, but Bayard was raised as the ninth child out of 12 of his grandparents’ children. One of the most remarkable factors about his childhood is that his grandparents maintained a stable amount of wealth and his grandmother was an integral member of the National Association for the advancement of colored people, or the NAACP. With his grandmother holding such a position, Rustin was often in the presence of well-established leaders such as W.E.B Dubois and James Weldon Johnson which would prove to be influential later in his life.
With exposure to civil rights activists and his grandmother’s religious affiliation as a Quaker so early in his life, Rustin’s activism started at an early age well before his correspondence with Martin Luther King Jr. He attended Wilberforce University (1932-1936), an Ohio based historically black college managed by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church that his grandfather was also a member of. Consequently, at Wilberforce, Rustin participated in a variety of extracurricular campus organizations, one being the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. However, by 1936 Rustin was expelled after organizing a strike and later attended Cheyney State Teachers College. Before moving on to other endeavors, he also completed an activist training program conducted by the American Friends Service Committee. A year later, with a move to Harlem to attend the City College of New York, his time there included efforts to liberate the Scottsboro Boys, joining the Young Communist League, as their racial equality efforts were appealing at the time, and becoming a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (a Quaker affiliation). By the 1940’s, Rustin would be involved in more remarkable and high stakes activism for civil rights. During World War II, the Communist Party of the United States turned away from its prior advocacy of racial equality and with that Rustin subsequently moved on from them and joined the Socialist Party. Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes “though he soon quit the party after it ordered him to cease protesting racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces, he was already on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.” There, he began working with two top civil rights workers A. Philip Randolph (head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and A.J Muste (associated with the pacifist group The Fellowship of Reconciliation/FOR). With their aid and counsel, they executed one of the most significant moments in civil rights history. Deciding to attack racial discrimination in the U.S military they planned perhaps a smaller “March on Washington” in 1941 as leverage in getting President Franklin Roosevelt to take steps to desegregate the military and defense business. With such pressure, Roosevelt agreed and issued Executive Order 8802 that banned discrimination in the military and also in all Federal agencies. Although it was a monumental achievement, it is said that Rustin was disappointed that the march was ultimately called off. In 1942, After joining the FOR traveling around speaking on behalf of Japanese people who were subjected to internment camps to protect their property, he had a run-in with the law by sitting in the second row on a bus heading to Nashville, Tennessee and refusing to give up his seat for a white person. Although he was released without charges, police arrested him miles before his destination, beat him and jailed him. 13 years prior to Rosa Parks’ similar well-known refusal. Later that year, with the help of prominent activists James L. Farmer and George Houser, the three men created the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), a pacifist organization that intended to employ the non-violent resistance teachings of Mahatma Gandhi in regards to dealing with civil rights violations. During his work with the organization, Rustin and many of his colleagues combined from FOR and CORE protested against being drafted into the military. As a result, he was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act and spent two years in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Extraordinarily, Rustin still managed to organize protests even within the prison against segregation in the dining quarters, along with aiding FOR to organize demonstrations against British reign in India. Shortly after his release, he would be placed under arrest several more times for fighting back against colonial rule in India and Africa. Consequently, two years later, Rustin would be detained again for crimes such as failing to appear before his draft board and was sentenced to three years. However, he only served two years and two months, as authorities were not pleased with his protests and his openness with his sexuality. In fact, he was even transferred to a higher security prison because of it.
According to blackpast.org throughout his career, Bayard was arrested approximately 23 times, but the only incident that is most referenced is his imprisonment for being caught having sex with two white men in a car in 1953. For this was the incident that would ultimately push Rustin to take more of a backseat or “silent” position as opposed to being on the forefront. Sadly, this has caused him to nearly be erased or overlooked today for his enormous contributions to the civil rights movement as a gay black man in a horrendously homophobic and segregated era. Rustin never voluntarily came out as he says circumstances forced him out. According to an article on PBS.com, it was only when he was a teenager that he verbally mentioned to his grandmother he preferred the company of young men to young women to which she replied: “I suppose that’s what you need to do”. His identity as a queer black man would cause him many problems in his advocacy work. By 1957, Rustin was establishing relationships with prominent civil rights leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr), but often amongst those friends existed people who would ultimately use his sexuality, communist past, and so on against him. Furthermore, Rustin began working closely with King and several others to form what is known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and by 1960, the two of them decided to organize a protest against the Democratic convention in order to have a stronger influence. Afraid that King’s success would diminish his own, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. endangered Rustin’s reputation with threats to expose Rustin’s past and create rumors accusing King and Rustin of being sexually involved if arrangements to end the demonstrations were not made. Ultimately, King broke under the pressure and soon requested that Rustin step down from the movement. He obliged King’s wishes and was then demoted to working behind the division for the foreseeable future. Such instances would continue to happen during the civil rights movement including Rustin’s decision to have Philip Randolph lead the March on Washington in 1963 as he was worried about his past being used again to sabotage the efforts. However, managed everything from publicity campaigns, recruiting, bus schedules, to securing bathrooms and so on.
Although Rustin in so many ways was forced to take a back seat role, he would ultimately be recognized as a leader in the march on the cover of TIME magazine along with Phillip Randolph on September 6th, 1963. The March on Washington took place on August 28th, with over 250,000 participants, 60,000 of them were white and its legacy resounded across the nation for years to come. In the years following, Rustin was as relentless as ever in his activist work. He led the New York City School Boycott, worked as a writer and published influential works such as “From Protest to Politics”, spoke out against other significant causes involving the Vietnam war, treatment of Jewish people and imperialism at the hands of the Soviet Union. In the 1970’s, he would begin to actively work towards gay rights and simultaneously open up more about his sexuality. This was also around the time he began falling in love with Walter Neagle who, at the time, was an executor and archivist of Bayard’s estate. It is said that his partner was the one who pushed him to advocate more openly for gay rights. Continuing, in an interview conducted by the Village Voice in 1987, Rustin spoke candidly, “I think the gay community has a moral obligation … to do whatever is possible to encourage more and more gays to come out of the closet.” Subsequently, he made it his mission to convey the severity of the AIDS crisis to the attention of the NAACP. Before he passed, the last thing he attempted to tackle was testifying on behalf of the New York State’s Gay Rights Bill.
Bayard Rustin passed on August 24, 1987, from a perforated appendix. He was survived by his partner of ten years, Walter Naegle. Despite the intense and harsh consequences he faced for his sexuality; being beaten, imprisoned, discredited, blackmailed and so on he remained an unapologetic and openly gay man. When you consider the intensity of his actions, his grit and resolve when it came to battling these systems of oppression it is almost unfathomable to have possessed his level of bravery at such times. Not only as a black man but a gay one. Bayard Rustin was more than just Martin Luther King Jr’s right-hand man, and orchestrated far more than just the iconic and noble March on Washington. He was a fierce and formidable pioneer for civil and human rights for everyone at a very early age until his passing. Influenced by his grandmother’s Quaker principles, and Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophies on nonviolence, it was him who taught Martin Luther King Jr. the nonviolent protest.
Sadly, it would take decades for Rustin’s contributions to be fully recognized as his arrest for lewd acts in 1953 would almost cement him into a silent leader. Thankfully, his legacy has been memorialized in significant ways. Besides having his writings preserved, Gaius Chamberlain writes in great black heroes that two documentaries have been made titled “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin” and “Out of the Past”, he has had several buildings including schools named after him as well as a number of LGBT related organizations. He was given a commemorative marker on the grounds where he attended high school in his hometown and was also inaugurated into the Legacy Walk that celebrated him being an integral part of LGBT history. In 2012 he was granted an honorary membership into the Delta Phi Upsilon fraternity. Finally, in 2013 he became an honoree in the United States Department Labor Hall of Honor and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, the highest civilian award of the United States.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Chamberlain, Gaius. “Bayard Rustin.” Great Black Heroes. 1 Feb 2015. www.greatblackheroes.com/civil-rights/bayard-rustin/.
Adams, Luther. “Rustin, Bayard (1910-1987).” Black Past. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/rustin-bayard-1910-1987
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Who Designed the March on Washington?” The Root. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/100-amazing-facts/who-designed-the-march-on-washington/
“Bayard Rustin: Trade union and civil rights organizer and activist.” Social Welfare History Project. https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/rustin-bayard-1912-1987/