Bayard Rustin was an openly gay intellectual activist, important largely behind the scenes in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and earlier and principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He counseled Martin Luther King, Jr. on the techniques of nonviolent resistance, and later in his life advocated on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.
Bayard Rustin served 30 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws.
A year before his death in 1987, Rustin said: “The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it’s the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated.”
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pa. He was raised by his maternal grandparents. Rustin’s grandmother, Julia, was a Quaker, though she attended her husband’s A.M.E. Church. He was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were frequent guests in the Rustin home. With these influences in his early life, Rustin campaigned against racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws in his youth.
In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce University. He left in 1936 before taking his final exams. He also attended Cheyney State Teachers College, now called Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. After completing an activist training program conducted by the American Friends Service Committee, Rustin moved to Harlem in 1937 and began studying at City College of New York. There he became involved in efforts to free the Scottsboro Boys — nine young black men who had been accused falsely of raping two white women. He also became a member of the Young Communist League in 1936.
Bayard Rustin helped organize a march on Washington in 1963.
The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was originally a strong supporter of the civil rights movement, but in 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin ordered the CPUSA to abandon civil rights work and focus on support for U.S. involvement in World War II. Disillusioned by this betrayal, Rustin began working with anti-Communist Socialists such as A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
The three of them proposed a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces, but the march was canceled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act), which banned discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus. Rustin also went to California to protect the property of Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps. Impressed with Rustin’s organizational skills, Muste appointed him as FOR’s secretary for student and general affairs.
In 1942, Rustin assisted two other staffers of FOR, George Houser and James L. Farmer, Jr., and a third activist, Berniece Fisher, as they formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Rustin, Houser, and other members of FOR and CORE were arrested for violating the Selective Service Act. From 1944 to 1946, Rustin was imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, where he organized protests against segregated dining facilities. During his incarceration, Rustin also organized FOR’s Free India Committee. After his release from prison, he was frequently arrested for protesting against British rule in India and Africa.
Rustin and Houser organized the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. This was the first of the Freedom Rides to test the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. CORE’s Gandhian tactics were opposed strenuously by the NAACP, and participants in the Journey of Reconciliation were arrested several times. Rustin served 30 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws.
Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin met with leaders of Ghana’s and Nigeria’s independence movements and, in 1951, he formed the Committee to Support South African Resistance, which later became the American Committee on Africa.
In 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, Calif.; originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he eventually pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of “sex perversion” (as consensual sodomy was officially referred to in California at the time) and served 60 days in jail. This was the first time that his sexual orientation had come to public attention, yet he remained candid about his sexuality, which was still criminalized throughout the United States. After his conviction, he was fired from FOR, though he became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League.
Rustin took leave from the War Resisters League in 1956 to advise Martin Luther King Jr., on Gandhian tactics as King organized the public transportation boycott in Montgomery, Ala., known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The following year, Rustin and King began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Many African-American leaders were concerned that Rustin’s openness about being gay and his Communist past would undermine support for the civil rights movement.
U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. forced Rustin’s resignation from the SCLC in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin’s morals charge in Congress.
Bayard Rustin at a press conference for the 1963 March on Washington.
When Rustin and Randolph organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Sen. Strom Thurmond railed against Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual” and produced an FBI photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing, to imply that there was a homosexual relationship between the two. Both men denied the allegation of an affair, but despite King’s support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not allow Rustin to receive any public recognition for his role in planning the march.
After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rustin advocated closer ties between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party and its labor activist base. Rustin was an early supporter of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy, but as the war escalated and began to supersede Democratic programs for racial reconciliation and labor reform, Rustin returned to his pacifist roots. Still, he was seen as a “sell-out” by the burgeoning Black Power movement, whose identity politics he rejected.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House. He also testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill and urged gay and lesbian organizations to stand up for all minorities.
Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. He is survived by his partner of 10 years, Walter Naegle, who is his executor and chief archivist.