Bayard Rustin was a pacifist and civil rights activist. He is best known for his participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s as an adviser to Martin Luther King. He has iconic status in Gay folk history for his refusal to hide his sexual orientation, and for his dedication to social justice for African Americans, LGBTQ people, refugees, India’s Dalit (“Untouchables”), Catholics, Jews — in short, anyone who was treated unfairly.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912 and raised in a Quaker household by his grandparents, who entertained such historical figures as James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois in their home. After his graduation from high school, he studied at a number of colleges on music scholarships, including City College of New York (CCNY). At the age of 25, he trained with the American Friends Service Committee to become an activist, and worked to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young Black men who were falsely accused of raping two White women. Like other people concerned with social justice at that time, he joined the Communist Party, becoming coordinator for the Youth Communist League at CCNY.
Rustin was also a talented performer as well as activist. In 1939, he sang in John Henry, a musical starring Paul Robeson and blues singer Josh White. Rustin joined White’s band (Josh White and His Carolinians) and performed at Greenwich Village’s Café Society nightclub. In 1941, he left the Communist Party and joined the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization led by A. J. Muste, a Christian pacifist with an interest in the work of Mohandas Gandhi.
In 1943, Rustin met his first lover, Davis Platt, at a conference at Bryn Mawr College. When Rustin received his induction notice later in the year, he informed the draft board that, as a conscientious objector, he would not submit to the draft, and sent back his registration and classification cards. He was consequently imprisoned for twenty-eight months in a number of federal prisons, and refused to accept either segregation or celibacy during his confinement.
In 1947, Rustin participated in a forerunner of the 1961 Freedom Rides with members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to test Morgan v. Virginia, a Supreme Court Decision that outlawed segregation in interstate travel. The following year, he went to Europe on a lecture tour and then to a world conference of pacifists in India. On his return, he was arrested for his participation in the 1947 bus rides and jailed in North Carolina, where he was put on a chain gang.
In 1952, Rustin spent several months in Africa, working with the independence movements in Nigeria and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). In January 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena, California, for lewd vagrancy. This ended his affiliation with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. After several weeks in jail, Rustin returned to New York, where he worked with the War Resisters League, a group of independent secular radical men, several of whom were also Gay. He began as program director in 1953, and soon became executive secretary, a position he held until 1965. Late in 1955, Rustin joined a group of New York activists called In Friendship. The group was led by A. Philip Randolph, the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was the largest African American union at the time.
Working with Martin Luther King
When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s house was fire-bombed during the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin went to bring Gandhian nonviolence to the nascent civil rights movement. King agreed with the teachings, but kept Rustin in the background as much as he could. Open association with a former Communist, conscientious objector, and Gay man such as Rustin could discredit the movement. Nevertheless, Rustin helped King found the Southern Christian leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, and organized a rally at the Lincoln Memorial for the fourth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, at which King and several members of Congress spoke.
This rally turned out to be a rehearsal for the 1963 March on Washington, and Rustin was key in making that historic march happen as well. Again, his background posed a problem. But Randolph, the official director of the event, appointed Rustin his deputy. Rustin was able to organize the march in eight weeks, bringing 200,000 people into Washington D.C. and providing the stage for King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Describing his philosophy for organizing, Rustin said, “If you want to organize anything, assume everybody is absolutely stupid. Then assume yourself that you are stupid.”
Rustin served as president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute from 1963 until 1979. In this position, he worked with civil rights groups and labor organizations to promote social justice. He was instrumental in starting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, and in the same year he arranged a lecture tour around King’s trip to Oslo where King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Anti-War, Refugees, Gay Rights
While Rustin opposed escalation of the war in Vietnam, he criticized the antiwar movement’s flirtation with Communists. He also found the new militancy of the civil rights movement (by now in its Black Power phase) repellent. During the 1970s, Rustin continued to work on issues like voter registration with the Urban League and the NAACP. He collaborated with Freedom House and the International Rescue Committee to dramatize the plight of refugees of war, particularly in Southeast Asia. In 1977, he met Walter Naegle, a twenty-seven year old who became his lover. Naegle helped him renew his ties to the War Resisters League.
One of the last acts of Rustin’s public life was successfully lobbying Mayor Edward Koch and the New York City Council to add sexual orientation to the city’s human rights code. When attempts were made to amend the law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1987, Rustin gave the following statement:
I have been arrested 24 times in the struggle for civil and human rights. My first arrest was in 1928 merely for distributing leaflets on behalf of Al Smith’s candidacy for President in a climate of anti-Catholic hysteria. Since that time I have fought against religious intolerance, political harassment and racism both here and abroad. I have fought against untouchability in India, against tribalism in Africa, and have sought to ensure that refugees coming to our shores are not subject to the same types of bigotry and intolerance from which they fled. As a member of the U.S. Memorial Council I have fought anti-Semitism not only in the United States but around the world.
On the basis of such experiences, I categorically can state and history reveals that when laws are amended to provide “legal loopholes” that deny equal protection for any group of citizens, an immediate threat is created for everyone, including those who may think they are forever immune to the consequences of such discrimination. History demonstrates that no group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment. The only final security for all is to provide now equal protection for every group under the law.
I therefore call upon all New Yorkers to give this new law a chance before considering any revisions.
Rustin died of a heart attack August 24, 1987. A year before he died, Rustin said, “Twenty-five, thirty years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were Black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”
During the opening ceremonies for the inauguration of Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18, 2009, openly Gay participants were part of the festivities for the first time. Speakers referred to King’s speech in front of that same monument in 1963. There was, however, no public acknowledgment of Rustin, who had organized the event, outside of LGBTQ blogs that commented afterwards about his conspicuous absence, thus illustrating his importance as a Gay African American icon in contrast to his relative obscurity in American history.
Anderson, Jervis. Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.
Daniel Levine, Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 2000.
Moston, Rachel. “Bayard Rustin: On His Own Terms.” The Haverford Journal. February 2005, Vol.1, Issue 1, 82-103.
Podair, Jerald. Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.
Rustin, Bayard. Down the Line: The Collected Writings. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1971.