In his 60 years of social activism, Bayard Rustin championed the power of action through civil disobedience. From Civil Rights to the anti-nuclear movement, Rustin challenged the existing status quo. Rustin was a pacifist, a seasoned organizer, an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., and openly gay.
Rustin organized his first strike, which rallied against the quality of food at Wilberforce University. He continued organizing in New York City and worked under famed labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Committed to justice, Rustin traveled across the country and overseas to advocate for change.
Rustin was periodically jailed for civil disobedience, but a particular arrest would become ammunition for Civil Rights critics and proponents alike. In 1953, he was arrested as a “suspected sexual pervert” in California.
Three years later, Rustin advised a 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolent protest strategies for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Once his previous arrest came to light, the veteran organizer left voluntarily as others considered him a “personal problem.”
Amidst homophobia within and outside the Civil Rights movement, Rustin did not allow prejudice to silence him. But his sexuality was regarded as a liability and left him in the shadows.
Not so much a public face of the movement, Rustin remained a private force in the push for racial equality. He worked behind the scenes with Randolph to organize one of the largest political demonstrations in U.S. history: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To an extraordinary crowd of 250,000, King delivered his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech.
Rustin’s role in the historic march grew his public profile, but he remained in the background. Nevertheless, he never stopped advocating for a better world, and in 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To celebrate his commitment to social justice, POV is now streaming the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, directed by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, which first aired on PBS in 2003.