“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” – Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin—the openly gay economic justice and civil rights activist, mentor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—died 30 years ago today.
Rustin famously advocated for “angelic troublemakers.”
Thanks to the leaps of progress made in the ongoing struggle for LGBT equal rights and a younger LGBT generation’s interest in knowing their history, Rustin has finally received some of the recognition he deserves for 50 years of important work advancing civil rights, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, he is currently a featured freedom fighter on The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website.
“In this moment in time, acknowledging everyone’s identities is more important than ever,” Rev. Jason Carson Wilson, lead organizer of a Rustin event in Washington DC, said in a statement. “Bayard Rustin brought his Blackness, queerness and Quaker sensibilities to every table at which he sat and to every protest he attended.”
Rustin’s long-time partner, Walter Naegle, accepted Rustin’s posthumously-awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2013, the Washington Blade noted.
Alveda King, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and apologist for President Trump has a very long anti-LGBT history. But that stands in sharp contrast to MLK and his equally activist wife, Coretta Scott King, who kept up the Dream long after her husband’s assassination. What history forgets is that Coretta Scott King was a close friend of Bayard Rustin and introduced him to MLK. Indeed, Coretta continued her close relationship with gays through Lynn Cothren, a white gay man who served as her closest assistant for 23 years until her death in 2006. After King’s funeral, the late poet Maya Angelou told this reporter that Cothren had “always been to me like a son. He was a son to Coretta and a son to Betty [Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X], too.” On the fight for LGBT equality she said: “I am aghast and appalled at any people who decide that another group should not have their rights. We’re all each other’s people.”
Also almost lost to history is that MLK had a taste of homophobia and the power of shame it could bring. This is an excerpt from gay historianJohn D’Emilio’s essay “Reading the Silences in a Gay Life: The Case of Bayard Rustin:”
—“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.
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.”—
The African American website TheRoot.com also looked at Rustin’s role in our history. In “Recognition Overdue for Bayard Rustin,” The Root’s Edmund Newton notes: “In truth, Rustin, who died in 1987 at age 75, may have been the one essential ingredient in the mix that miraculously gelled in the 1960s to bring down Jim Crow. He was the civil rights movement’s master strategist, a visionary with an abiding commitment to nonviolent action who created the blueprint for huge advances in the cause of racial equality.”
Here’s the trailer for an important documentary on the life and agitating/organizing times of Bayard Rustin—“Brother Outsider – the Life of Bayard Rustin:”