*originally posted October 26, 2009
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 thought didn’t matter, an undesirable. But Bayard 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 the powerful. One of the key African-American civil rights activists of the last century, Rustin's legacy has sadly been obscured over the 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 played an important role in the underground railroad. He was raised by his grandmother Julia, a devout Quaker, 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 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 the city. He was a regular performer at the Café Society 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 CPUSA turned away from domestic issues and pressured Rustin to stop fighting racial injustice; when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered the CPUSA to abandon all civil rights work and focus only on supporting U.S. involvement in the war. Rustin felt betrayed by the CPUSA, left the party and became critical of it, a stance 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 organized the 1941 African-American March on Washington and Rustin worked with FOR over the next decade, developing programs that focused on race relations, which lead to the creation of the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE].
Rustin never hid his disdain for racism, or segregation, or for the Communist party's shift in policy, and he also never hid being gay, though it was often overlooked because of his discretion, and the work he was doing for the African-American community.
However, in California, in 1953, a public scandal undermined his authority and hindered his career for many years. After speaking to a group about FOR, 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 called at the time — and spent two months in jail. He was dismissed from his position with FOR.
But the arrest, and the ensuing shame, didn't stop him from working for equality. After his ouster from FOR, Rustin joined 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 there that he met Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rustin's credentials impressed Dr. King, but there was concern that his past ties to the Communist Party and his arrest, might overshadow Dr. King's work, and tarnish the movement. But Rustin wouldn't give up, and 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, devastated by Powell's ruthlessness and by what he saw as King's betrayal. Still, he continued to advise King and once again became a major player in the formation of the 1963 March on Washington, though, once again, the fact that Rustin was gay would be used to undermine his commitment to the struggle.
South Carolina Senator, and segregationist, Strom Thurmond tried to discredit the 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 the two men. Rustin and King 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; in fact, the allegations 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.
Bayard 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.