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Bayard Rustin (1910 - 1987)

Civil rights activist, writer, and pacifist, Bayard Rustin was a key figure in the struggle for racial and social justice from the 1940s on. Despite his role as a key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., however, and his influence in the decisive years of the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin's story has been largely hidden from history. Bayard Rustin was a gay man, and because of the stigma attached to homosexuality, most Americans do not know who he was or what he accomplished.

Rustin was deeply influenced by his Quaker roots and by the philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi. In the 1930s he became a member of the Communist Party, but left the Party when its leaders forbade him to advocate integration in his work as an organizer. His anti-war efforts landed him in jail for two years during World War II, and his experiences in jail solidified his belief in the power of non-violent resistance. Tireless in his quest for pacifism and equality, he was arrested again and again for civil disobedience and for his efforts to undo Jim Crow laws in the South. But one arrest was different.

In 1953, Rustin was jailed in Pasadena on a morals charge: He had been found having sex with another man in a car. Rustin struggled to keep his job with a pacifist organization after the arrest. At the time he wrote to a friend, "I know now that for me, sex must be sublimated, if I am to live with myself and in this world longer." That arrest would haunt him for the rest of his career.

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During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin travelled to Alabama to advise Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., counseling him on the strategies and tactics of non-violent resistance. In the wake of the eventual triumph in Montgomery, Rustin became one of King's most trusted advisors and a highly influential strategist for the movement.

While Rustin helped to orchestrate King's rise to power, his sexuality made King and the movement vulnerable to attack. Rustin never hid his sexuality; It was an "open secret." In 1960, King and Rustin planned to stage a demonstration at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Adam Clayton Powell, the Congressman from Harlem, feared the demonstrations would undermine his own power. Powell called King and told him to cancel the demonstrations, threatening to "reveal" that King and Rustin were having an affair. There was no affair, but King capitulated and Rustin resigned, forced out of the movement he had helped create.

For three years, Rustin lived in a kind of exile. During that time, white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement intensified, and the South erupted in violence. Finally, in June of 1963, the leaders of the movement decided it was time to organize a massive march on Washington. Movement leaders knew that Rustin was best qualified to organize the march, but feared his sexuality would be used to discredit the movement. In order to distance Rustin from the march, they appointed A. Philip Randolph director. Randolph, in turn, appointed Rustin his deputy.

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But civil rights opponents were not fooled. As plans for the march took shape, J. Edgar Hoover passed Rustin's arrest record to Strom Thurmond, the segregationist Senator from South Carolina. The next day, the movement's leaders' fears were realized as Thurmond took to the Senate floor, Rustin's arrest record in hand, and declared that the march was being organized by a "pervert."

This time, because the attack was coming from a bigoted Southern politician, movement leaders stood by Rustin. Plans for the march continued, and in August of 1963, a quarter of a million Americans gathered in Washington, demanding that Congress put an end to officially-sanctioned racism. "The March" was the watershed event in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and Rustin was largely responsible for its success. It was the high point of his career.

During the later 1960's, the non-violent Civil Rights Movement was eclipsed by the radical tactics of black power. Rustin continued to urge non-violent resistance, and emphasized the primacy of both economic reform for blacks and coalition politics with sympathetic white groups. Because of his moderate views, Rustin was often dismissed and vilified, by both the new black leadership and the New Left, as an Uncle Tom.

These philosophical differences and the homophobia of some within the Civil Rights Movement kept Rustin from taking his rightful place within the ranks of honored civil rights pioneers. Towards the end of his life, Rustin began to give vocal support to the gay rights movement, granting several interviews about his sexuality. Bayard Rustin died suddenly in 1987.

Source: D'Emilio 1996