Bayard Rustin: The Most Influential Civil Rights Force You Never Knew
Most people know Bayard Rustin for organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but he was much more than that. He marched on Selma, boycotted segregation in New York schools, and was a part of nearly every civil rights event you’ve heard about.
He influenced key people in the civil rights movement, people who would change a nation and the world, people like Martin Luther King Jr.
It was Rustin who presented King with this threatening idea of a non-violence, altering King’s path and the path of the civil rights movement.
Bayard Rustin built his whole life around civil rights. Although instrumental, even pivotal to the movement, what kept him from taking a more prominent role in the spotlight of civil rights was one little aspect we still can’t all agree on.
He was gay.
Don’t let that label corner your perceptions of him. The man Bayard Rustin was as three-dimensional as they come, forged by his childhood home for sure, but also forged by his viewpoint, which were filtered through two minority lenses.
He would spend his life refining the focus of those lenses, affecting our viewpoint in the process. He was, what Frederick Douglass would have called, an agitator.
Growing Up Bayard
Born in 1912, Rustin grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, raised by his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin. He believed they were his parents.
His biological mother, Florence, who was not equipped to raise him, he grew up believing was his sister.
Julia Rustin was a Quaker, Christians who practice pacifism. She was also involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Because of this, growing up, the Rustin home was host to many outspoken NAACP leaders, influences on young Bayard for sure, shaping the man he would become.
Early in Rustin’s life he campaigned against the Jim Crow laws, organized strikes, got kicked out of one school, and moved to New York to attend another.
There, he joined a Quaker society and took up working as a performer. That was when he started to build the network that would shape his adult life.
In the 1940s, Rustin took issue with the direction of a group he’d joined in the 30s, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).
After Germany attacked the Soviets in ’41, Stalin directed CPUSA to drop its civil rights pursuits in favor of swaying the United States to join the war.
Instead, Rustin quit and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in 1941, a group with socialist and Quaker affiliations.
It was there that he and two other FOR activists, Norman Thomas and A. Philip Randolph first proposed a march for rights on Washington.
The trio met with President Roosevelt, advising him that a march would take place if he did nothing about the existing segregation laws.
Roosevelt issued the Fair Employment Act, which was enough to cool them off for the time being, but the fight was barely over.
Desegregation was a many-layered fight with as many years ahead before we would unravel the mess.
In ’42, Rustin joined another group called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who modeled their philosophy after Gandhi’s non-violent approach to change.
CORE declared themselves pacifists, demonstrating some confusion about the differences between pacifism and nonviolence, but in any case… they refused the Selective Service Act (SSA or the draft).
This landed Rustin and other members in jail for two years. Rustin was no stranger to incarceration. Just before that incident, he’d spent 22 days on a chain gang for sitting in the front of a bus out of Louisville.
When he got out of prison, he took a more determined approach to following the ways of Gandhi. Authorities jailed him multiple times for speaking out against British colonialism in India.
Then, in 1948, he traveled to India to learn firsthand about non-violence from leaders in the Gandhian movement.
These ideas would have a profound effect on Rustin and consequently Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin would become the bridge between the two great leaders.
History doesn’t often record that King was not always the voice of nonviolence. When Rustin approached him in 1956, the famous activist still kept armed security in his home.
A clinical term, no doubt, but that was what they called it at the time. There is no way around the fact that Rustin was gay.
Had he lived today, it may not have been such an issue. According to people close to him, Rustin was never ashamed of his sexuality, but it was not at the front of his battles early in life.
As the saying goes, one must pick his battles. Rustin viewed sexuality as a private matter. Later, gay rights would take a more prominent role for him, but not at the peak of the civil rights movement.
In 1953, in Pasadena, California, police arrested him for the criminal act of “homosexual activity.” That outed him publicly, which most attribute as the reason he never took a leadership role in civil rights.
Others would argue that Rustin’s role was always that of a leader in the background. He worked with others to affect change, never seeking the spotlight himself.
Whichever version of his story is true, urged by his partner Walter Naegle, by the 1980s Rustin took an active role in Gay rights. In Rustin’s esteem, gay rights were the new barometer for social change in the ’80s.
Rustin died in 1987, from a ruptured appendix. Most of his recognition came posthumously.
At his funeral, Ronald Reagan heaped praise on the man for his work in civil rights. In 2003, a documentary Brother Outsider captured the life and times of Bayard Rustin.
He would not live to see the legalization of gay marriage, nor the first black president. In a bit of irony, Barack Obama awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November of 2013.