Remembering Bayard Rustin: The Centennial of a Remarkable Life

Along with veteran organizer Ella Baker, another female activist whose role was minimized, Rustin encouraged King to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rustin and Baker helped lay out the structural blueprint for the organization.  

His most gratifying achievement was his masterful orchestration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which drew 250,000 attendees and millions of viewers. This was the culmination of his remarkable path as an activist by then renowned on the international scene. In the two decades following King’s assassination, he operated on the international stage, addressing human rights issues in Pakistan, South Africa and Thailand.

Despite this expansive legacy of service, Rustin remains largely forgotten. Whereas such names as Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and A. Phillip Randolph dot the pages of black history calendars and college textbooks, Rustin is conspicuously absent. He is similarly unknown or ignored by LGBT historians, writers and advocates. Outside of the rarefied circles of pacifists, movement scholars and mostly black LGBT activists, few recognize his name.

But how, you might ask, could an individual of such immense agency and influence be tucked into the shadowed corners of history? Rustin was openly homosexual and sexually active at a time when public demonstration of queerness was usually condemned, particularly among Southerners of all races.

Throughout his career, he was distrusted and ostracized by the very colleagues who were awed by (and benefitted from) his uncanny skills. At times Randolph and King would defend him against black detractors within their ranks and whites who highlighted Rustin’s sexuality to discredit the movement.

From his younger years as a passionate young activist fighting racism in the South, Rustin remained in the twin bullseye of racism and homophobia. It was however the double standards of homophobia that barred him as an outsider among his own people.

Rustin was penalized for carrying on with men at college, in jail while serving a sentence for resisting the draft, and most notably in Pasadena, Calif., where he was arrested for having sex with two men in parked car.

Were he straight, such sexual escapades would have been overlooked, perhaps forgiven as youthful indiscretions. The Pasadena arrest was a scarlet brand that cost him his position with the Fellowship Of Reconciliation, and followed him throughout his tenure with the movement. Rustin observed, “I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer.”

In Montgomery, after a black reporter prepared to publicize Rustin’s homosexuality and Communist ties, he was swiftly ferried out of town in the trunk of a car. When Adam Clayton Powell threatened to spread rumors about a sexual tryst between King and Rustin, Rustin resigned from the SCLC, the very organization he helped found.

While his upbringing in 1920s segregated West Chester, Pa., may have prepared him for the more flagrant bigotry of Southern whites, what could have forewarned him of the abiding scorn from his own people? Neither his formidable talents, nor his firm commitment spared him his lot as a “brother outsider”.

His queerness and his earlier association in with the Communist Party not only fit the stereotype white racists crafted about “Northern agitators”. These identities rendered him as politically as well as culturally “queer” among Southern blacks, a stranger never to be fully embraced. How deeply does the bullet wound when it is your own people pulling the trigger?

I wonder how Rustin assessed his marginalization in comparison to women in the movement. By the early 60s, the movement’s legend had already been rewritten. The centralization of King and other male ministers pushed the original leaders of the boycott, women like Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson, to the margin. Did he uphold by intent or inaction the exclusion of women speakers from the March on Washington? How much of his already compromised male privilege might he have risked advocating for greater recognition of women’s leadership?

By the dawn of the 80s, Rustin emerged as an outspoken advocate for equality for gays and lesbians. In an interview with black gay editor Joseph Beam, Rustin emphasized the need for gays to come out in order to effectively challenge homophobia. He argued that the closet was a critical threat to freedom for all gays and framed the status of gay people in the U.S. as “the litmus paper by which this democracy is to be judged.”

Although he recognized substantial differences between race and sexual orientation and the ways in which such identities are targeted, he underlined parallels between racism and homophobia. While he centered most of his formal work on labor and internal human rights, Rustin redefined himself as a gay activist as well through speeches and key interviews.

Through my association with fellow out gay writers in New York, I learned about Rustin one year before his death in 1987. I was saddened by the lateness of my discovery, recalling my childhood disappointment about black achievers who went unrecognized by white historians. I find Bayard Rustin an enduring inspiration for my own work toward progressive social change in black and LGBT communities.

As an openly gay black man focused on racial and economic justice, Rustin modeled gay participation in universal human rights work. As a civil rights activist who was gay he was a catalyst forcing black people and others to reconcile the values of the movement with the values that informed how they treated him.

Saturday, March 17, marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. Such a life of distinction deserves our full recognition. What will you do in honor of Bayard Rustin?

• Author Craig Washington is an organizer of the Bayard Rustin-Audre Lorde Breakfast and a proud recipient of the Bayard Rustin scholarship awarded by the ZAMI Audre Lorde Scholarship Fund.

• Charis Books & More in Atlanta will feature a three-part book discussion group in June of the new release “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” The group will be held Tuesday evenings 7:30 to 9 p.m. on June 5, June 12 and June 19. For more information, call 404-524-0304.

Photo: Bayard Rustin