Bayard Rustin: Gay civil rights leader made mark despite controversy

In this Aug. 24, 1963, file photo, Bayard Rustin points to a map showing the path of the 1963 March on Washington during a news conference at the New York City headquarters. Rustin was gay in an era when same-sex relations were widely reviled in American society. He died in 1987, and is sometimes forgotten in civil rights history. AP PHOTO / FILE
In this Aug. 24, 1963, file photo, Bayard Rustin points to a map showing the path of the 1963 March on Washington during a news conference at the New York City headquarters. Rustin was gay in an era when same-sex relations were widely reviled in American society. He died in 1987, and is sometimes forgotten in civil rights history. AP PHOTO / FILE

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

In 1953, gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California, for having consensual sex with a man, hours after delivering a speech on world peace.

He spent 60 days in jail, registered as a sex offender and his reputation as a prominent figure in the growing civil rights movements was tarnished.

Nearly 70 years after his arrest, California Gov. Gavin Newsom would pardon Rustin posthumously, citing outdated laws that unjustly targeted the LGBTQ community.

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

Rustin struggled to get his career back on track after his arrest, but had to quit his job and became the executive secretary for the War Resisters League, one of the oldest pacifist organizations in the United States. In 1956, he traveled to Montgomery to counsel the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on tactical, nonviolent strategies to use during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin, despite his sexual orientation being a controversial topic among civil rights leaders, became one of King’s closest advisers after the success of the boycott.

Bayard Rustin (right), shown with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956, counseled King on tactical, nonviolent strategies to use during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin, despite his sexual orientation being a controversial topic among civil rights leaders, became one of King’s closest advisers after the success of the boycott. AP PHOTO / FILE
Bayard Rustin (right), shown with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956, counseled King on tactical, nonviolent strategies to use during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin, despite his sexual orientation being a controversial topic among civil rights leaders, became one of King’s closest advisers after the success of the boycott. AP PHOTO / FILE

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“The fact that he had been arrested for it, made it difficult for him to play a prominent role,” said Clayborne Carson, King biographer and director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. “It was very difficult. At every point, as soon as he became prominent enough, it was used against him.”

King and Rustin worked closely together developing organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside Ella Baker and Stanley Levison. He even helped draft King's memoir, "Stride Toward Freedom." However, their relationship became strained after Adam Clayton Powell Jr., New York's first African American congressman, threatened to expose an alleged affair between King and Rustin unless they suspended a planned protest of the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Rustin resigned from the SCLC and exiled himself from the very movement he helped build.

“At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him,” Rustin said in a 1980s interview with the Washington Blade.

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (center) speaks with children before a demonstration in 1964. CONTRIBUTED BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (center) speaks with children before a demonstration in 1964. CONTRIBUTED BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

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When A. Philip Randolph began planning the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he insisted that Rustin be appointed chief organizer although many Christian leaders objected. The duo had previously worked together on civil rights projects, going so far as planning a March on Washington 20 years earlier.

“When Randolph decided to stage the March on Washington in ’63, he insisted that Rustin be the organizer, and he had enough clout to put down criticism of him,” Carson said. “He had worked with him for 20 years and had always admired Rustin’s talents. It was just that he had that one strike against him.”

South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond tried to discredit Rustin by reading his arrest record on the Senate floor. But more than 200,000 people attended the march, where King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Rustin’s highly visible role at the march landed him on the cover of Life magazine, which Carson called the “pinnacle of Rustin’s career.”

The week after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963, the event’s organizers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, appeared on the cover of Life magazine.
The week after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963, the event’s organizers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

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“There would not be an SCLC without him. Randolph’s threat of a march would not have been credible without someone like Rustin to help him pull it off,” Carson said. “He was one of the most important strategists and organizers of the 20th century.”

Born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was raised by his grandparents, who taught him the Quaker principles that shaped his activism career. They were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and hosted members like W.E.B. Du Bois. He attended Wilberforce University on a music scholarship but was expelled for organizing a strike.

In 1947, he served as a leader for the Journey of Reconciliation, one of the first “Freedom Rides,” and in 1958, he helped coordinate a rally to protest nuclear weapons in Aldermaston, England.

Bayard Rustin (left) and Dr. Eugene Reed (right) at the Freedom House in 1964. CONTRIBUTED BY AL RAVENNA / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Bayard Rustin (left) and Dr. Eugene Reed (right) at the Freedom House in 1964. CONTRIBUTED BY AL RAVENNA / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

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After the March on Washington and the ratification of the Voting Rights Act, Rustin shifted his focus away from protests toward electoral politics and in support of gay rights until his death in 1987.

“He saw this as another challenge, another barrier that had to be broken down — a larger struggle for human rights and for individual freedoms,” said his longtime partner Walter Naegle in an interview with NPR.

On Aug. 8, 2013, nearly 50 years to the day of the March on Washington, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying: “America honors Bayard Rustin as one of its greatest architects for social change and a fearless advocate for its most vulnerable citizens.”

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