Bayard Rustin: Gay Civil Rights Leader and MLK's Adviser

Bayard Rustin: Gay Civil Rights Leader and MLK's Adviser

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On the morning of August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of more than 200,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Marking the 100-year anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address, King hoped to mend the racial fractures within the country. The crowds had gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the platform for his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech.

While King spoke as the face of the civil rights movement, another man stood behind the scenes, an indispensable force within the movement. He was Bayard Rustin, a man whose life was shaped by the very prejudices the movement fought against, not only because of his race, but also because he was gay. Rustin would spend his life fighting for the rights of others, even while facing discrimination of his own.

To the hundreds of thousands who were bused to Washington for the march, Rustin was synonymous with the movement. After all, he was the march’s chief organizer. “Rustin [organized] this march in an eight-week period, without cell phones, without email, without faxes. So he and his team [were] working the phones hard, they [were] typing letters constantly,” says Michael G. Long, editor of I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters and co-author of Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist. “From what I hear, the headquarters was in sheer chaos all the time. And Rustin thrived in an environment like that.”

It’s no surprise that Rustin was able to find composure in chaos. Born in 1912 and raised by his grandparents in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin learned Quaker values of nonviolence and peace from an early age. His confidence in those beliefs and in himself were reinforced by his grandmother, Julia Rustin, who affirmed his sexuality—a response that was nearly unheard of at the time. “According to Bayard, she wasn’t concerned so much about him dating men, she was more concerned about the men that he chose,” Long explains.

In 1937, Rustin went to City College of New York, where he joined the Young Communist League because he was attracted to the league’s progressive views on racial issues. But when the group’s focus shifted with the start of World War II to supporting the Soviet Union as opposed to racial injustice in the U.S., Rustin left the organization. Rustin was staunchly against the war, and would be arrested and jailed in 1944 as a “conscientious objector” after refusing to register for the draft.

After leaving the group, Rustin shifted his attention to socialism, joining the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in 1941. The group, led at the time by A.J. Muste, advocated for peace, labor rights and equality for all people—unless those people were gay.

In 1953, after more than 10 years and numerous arrests while working with FOR, Rustin was fired from his position as secretary for student and general affairs when he was arrested in Pasadena, California, for having sex with another man in a parked car and charged with “sex perversion.” It was one of many times that his sexuality would be used against him.

But the experience with FOR wasn’t for nothing. It was through his interest in socialism that Rustin met his mentor, A. Philip Randolph. In 1941, Rustin, along with Randolph and Muste, had proposed a March on Washington to combat the discrimination of black workers in the defense department. Before the march could come to fruition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that opened up the defense industry to black workers—but the bond between Rustin and Randolph would last for decades.

In fact, it was Randolph who persuaded Rustin to meet with King in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, to show support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A young King would be forever changed after his encounter with Rustin.

“Dr. King had read Gandhi, but at that point he hadn’t accepted pacifism as a way of life. And so when Rustin arrived in Montgomery, Dr. King’s home was full of guns,” Long explains. “It was Bayard Rustin, and a few other pacifists, who really encouraged Dr. King to accept pacifism as a way of life.”

At the urging of Rustin, pacifism and nonviolence would become cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement. But the meeting would mark the beginning of a long, sometimes tenuous relationship between the two.

When they met, King was aware of Rustin’s sexual orientation, and of Rustin’s 1953 arrest on a morals charge. However, Rustin showcased brilliant strategies and organization skills—areas where King, while a rousing speaker and a strong leader, wasn’t as strong. So Rustin’s sexual orientation was overlooked—at least for the time being.

Rustin was a part of King’s inner circle as the Civil Rights Movement grew in the 1950s, but others considered him a liability. Tensions came to a head, and the worst fears of civil rights activists were realized at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Randolph, King, and Rustin had begun arrangements to march at the Democratic National Convention of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his running mate Lyndon B. Johnson in Los Angeles, protesting the party’s lackluster position on civil rights. In response, Democratic leadership sent black congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stop the march before it happened. And he used Rustin’s sexual orientation as his weapon.

Prior to the convention, Powell sent an intermediary to threaten King, telling him that if they proceeded with the march, he would accuse King of having an affair with Rustin, not only killing the march but also dealing a possibly fatal blow to the movement as a whole.

After consulting with his colleagues and advisors, including his close confidante, advisor and speech writer, Clarence Jones, King decided to distance himself from Rustin. Rustin’s reluctant resignation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference marked one of few times that King lost a battle to fear.

“It was a personally painful situation for him, I think, because he was disappointed that Dr. King didn’t stand up for him or didn’t have more backbone,” says Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner at the time of his death in 1987. “But, in all fairness to Dr. King and to Bayard, Bayard understood that this was a political move and it was probably better for Dr. King to do what he did politically speaking, in terms of the movement.”

In response to Powell’s threat, Jones fought fire with fire. He told Powell if he went to the media with the fabricated rumor about King, he would litter Harlem, the district that Powell represented, with posters and pictures of all of the women that Powell had slept with. The threat worked, and King proceeded to protest the 1960 Democratic Convention, with Rustin as the sole casualty.

Rustin continued his work with Randolph on civil rights issues, outside of the umbrella of the SCLC. During the years that Rustin wasn’t involved in organizing marches, protests and demonstrations, from 1960 to 1963, the movement saw little progress. King recognized that the movement so many had sacrificed their lives for was losing steam, and slowly reintegrated Rustin during the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. This way, when the March on Washington—a proposal made by Randolph the year prior—would start to take shape, Rustin would already be involved.

Unfortunately for Rustin, detractors from within the movement still opposed his involvement. When it was proposed that Rustin organize a re-envisioned version of the March on Washington that had been canceled 20 years prior, Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, was adamantly opposed.

“I know you’re a Quaker, but that’s not what I’ll have to defend. I’ll have to defend draft dodging. I’ll have to defend promiscuity,” Wilkins argued, according to The Guardian. “The question is never going to be homosexuality, it’s going to be promiscuity, and I can’t defend that. And the fact is that you were a member of the Young Communist League. And I don’t care what you say, I can’t defend that.”

Wilkins had a point. With Rustin at the helm of the March on Washington, they were sure to encounter these questions. But there was no one better suited to make the march the historic event that it was intended to be. So, King and John Lewis, a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at the time, came up with a plan.

Instead of directly involving Rustin, King and Lewis held a caucus to nominate Randolph to lead the march. Randolph, a respected figure in the movement, wouldn’t garner opposition from others.

“But King and Lewis also knew that if Randolph became the official director of the march, he would appoint Bayard as his deputy,” says Long. “And Bayard would really be the one who would lead the march.”

So, with Randolph as the director and Rustin as his deputy, arrangements for the march were underway. And once again, Rustin’s past and personal life were used to try and stop the movement. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina brought nationwide media attention to Bayard after claiming that the march was being organized by “Communist, draft-dodger and homosexual.”

But it would seem that the impact of what was once the movement’s Achilles’ heel had lost its effectiveness. Not only did King come out in support of Rustin when questioned by the media, all of the leaders within the movement did. Even Wilkins put his reservations aside for the sake of progress.

The march went on to be more successful than anyone could’ve imagined, and marked a turning point for both the country and for Rustin.

“It came at the end of a summer of terror in the South. The assassination of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham fire hoses and dogs. There was a lot of discouragement and frustration,” Naegle recalls. “Along came the March on Washington, and I think it really re-energized people, inspired them, lifted up their hope again and renewed the spirit.”

Following the success of the march, Rustin and King would continue to work together for years. Although their views still clashed from time to time.

While planning the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, Rustin questioned the effectiveness of the demonstration. He supported the idea of fighting for the impoverished people of the country, but he wasn’t sure of the timing and worried it could lead to violence in already struggling communities. He voiced his opinions publicly, leading to King harboring feelings of betrayal.

Rustin was, once again, ousted from King’s planning process. But after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Rustin agreed to fly from Memphis to help lead the campaign in King’s absence. However, with leadership within the movement opposed to his involvement, Rustin withdrew his agreement.

Rustin would continue his role in activism, speaking at events for gay rights in the 1980s. It was also during this time, the last years of his life, that Rustin gave an interview with the Washington Blade, recalling the duality of being both black and gay in the Civil Rights Movement and how that shaped his refusal to hide his sexual orientation.

One moment in particular helped motivate his decision to be open about his sexuality. After walking towards the back of a bus in the 1940s during the Jim Crow South, a white child reached up to touch his tie, only to be stopped by their mother. She scolded her child and told them not to touch Rustin or anyone who looked like him, hurling a slur his way in the process.

"If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it's going to end up saying, 'They like it back there, I've never seen anybody protest against it.'," Rustin said in the interview, which was released in early 2019 via the podcast Making Gay History.

"It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn't I was a part of the prejudice," he continued. "I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me."

Rustin died on August 24, 1987, but his fight for nonviolence lived on among the countless people inspired by the 1963 March on Washington. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his unyielding career in civil rights activism.

Who Designed the March on Washington?

If you had been a bus captain en route to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, you would have known who its organizing genius was, and you wouldn’t have been surprised to see his picture on the cover of Life magazine a week later. Yet of all the leaders of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin lived and worked in the deepest shadows, not because he was a closeted gay man, but because he wasn’t trying to hide who he was. That, combined with his former ties to the Community Party, was considered to be a liability.

Still, whatever his detractors said, there would always be that perfect day of the march, that beautiful, concentrated expression of Rustin’s decades of commitment to vociferous, but always nonviolent, protest. It was, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, the “greatest demonstration for freedom” in American history. And it is why, on this 50th anniversary, I ask that if you teach your children one new name from the heroes of black history, please let it be Bayard Rustin.

His upbringing

The activist was raised by his grandparents Julia and Janifer Rustin, although he was brought up in the belief that they were his parents. His older sibling Florence was actually his mother, while his father was West Indian immigrant Archie Hopkins.

Bayard had a good education. He studied at Wilberforce University in Ohio and Cheyney State Teachers College in Pennsylvania before moving to New York in 1937, where he studied at City College of New York.

He had a keen interest in politics, and joined the Young Communist League for a short period of time in 1936, before becoming disillusioned with the party.

Bayard Rustin Talks Being Openly Gay

Despite the pushback to his sexuality, Bayard Rustin continued to be openly gay. And according to Rustin himself, coming out “was an absolute necessity.”

At the start of 2019, the podcast Making Gay History released an uncovered interview between Bayard Rustin and the Washington Blade. In the interview, Rustin shares that he was constantly the target of homophobic attacks. And unfortunately, Rustin’s peers within the Civil Rights movement did not jump to his defense.

“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 told to the Blade.

But that wasn’t the only recording provided to us by Making Gay History. Eric Marcus, the podcast’s host, received a tape from Rustin’s surviving partner Walter Naegle. In the recording, Rustin explains that he felt it was a responsibility to be open about his sexuality. He says he began to think that way after a specific event on a segregated bus in the 1940s American South.

“As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it,” he recalled in the audio. “Whereupon its mother said, ‘Don’t touch a n*****.’ “

Rustin then recalled thinking, “If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, ‘They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.’ “

Instead, he saw an opportunity to disrupt the bus riders’ preconceived notions and the blossoming worldview of that young child.

“I owe it to that child,” he told himself, “that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.”

Rustin then realized the importance of confirming your identity, whether it be terms of race or sexual orientation, and standing adamantly by that self-assertion.

“It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice,” he said. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

To this day, Bayard Rustin is still an unsung hero among the Black and LGBTQ communities. Yet, he has unmistakably affected both for the greater good. We hope whoever is reading this article walks away from his words and life story with an appreciation. An appreciation for not only Rustin but also the responsibility he saw in himself and all of us. Hopefully, we can all live up to the world he was trying to build.

Meet the Gay Activist Behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King Jr. did not fight against racial discrimination alone.

While King is the face of the civil rights movement, he relied on a coalition of allies to make the movement possible, from ministers to activists, politicians to labor unions. So while there's no official document detailing King's support for the LGBT community, the fact that Bayard Rustin, one of his trusted advisers and strategists, was a black gay man speaks volumes about King's view on homosexuality.

"I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King's dream," King's widow, Coretta Scott King, said in a 1998 speech, "to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people." While other leaders of '60s-era civil rights movement may have rejected homosexuality in their midst, King gave Rustin a seat at the table.

Born in 1912, Rustin was an early "freedom rider" in the 1940s and quickly rose to prominence in the burgeoning civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. He is credited with organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956 and the March on Washington in 1963, throughout which time he and King built a friendship.

In a 1987 essay published the year he died and recently reposted at the Advocate, Rustin elaborated upon how his homosexuality affected both their friendship and Rustin's place within the movement.

"It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I'm sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view," wrote Rustin. "Otherwise he would not have hired me. He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me. He was under such extraordinary pressure about his own sex life. J. Edgar Hoover was spreading stories, and there were very real efforts to entrap him. I think at a given point he had to reach a decision. My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement."

In 1960, Rustin was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to which he and King were the two head organizers, because of threats from colleagues within the civil rights movement to both out Rustin and, as John D'Emilio contends in his Rustin biography, to spread rumors that Rustin and King were lovers.

Rustin was aware that the homophobic climate of America in the mid-20th century created tension in his friendship with King. In his essay, he writes, "It was never a prejudicial situation it was that given the attitude at that time, people felt this was a problem."

But Rustin, who was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, was a fighter, and continued his critical work behind closed doors but still standing alongside King in critical moments, most notably the March on Washington. It was Rustin's brilliant logistical and organizing skills that made the march happen. Some activists like the Rev. Irene Monroe, contend that it was through Rustin that King became the legend he is today, because the march "catapulted King onto the world stage."

Rustin's essay is a resounding moment that King stood for the dignity of all men, gay or straight. That other leaders within the movement disagreed with King and pressured him to fire Rustin because of his homosexuality is evidence that King was a leader ahead of his time.

After the successes of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Rustin turned his attention to gay rights, to which he dedicated the rest of his life. In 1986, one year prior to his death, he delivered the impassioned speech, "The New N****** Are Gays," as a way to create a dialogue between the black rights and gay rights movements.

"Blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change," he said. "Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new 'n******' are gays. . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change."

Living as a gay black man throughout the 20th century, Rustin parlayed intersectional experience as both gay and black into his activism. He tried to make the civil rights movement less homophobic, and the gay rights movement less racist. At the same time, being the strategist that he was, he fully understood the political ties that bound people like King to restrain their activism, or to make more progressive elements of their political beliefs more covert and therefore more palatable to the general public.

Rustin knew King to be a good and honest man, who championed "radical love," "democratic socialism" and equality for all people. Whether King labeled himself a "gay ally" is not only an anachronistic dream, it's also not really important considering the archive of King's activism and his treatment of all people. In reality, it's Rustin's work both during the civil rights movement of King and throughout the last decades of his life that serves as a testament to King's vision for an equal nation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was mentored by Bayard Rustin – a gay civil rights pioneer

Bayard Rustin was a trailblazing, openly gay civil rights activist. and the architect of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Rustin introduced King to the precepts of nonviolence during the Montgomery bus boycott, which planted the seed and lead to the Civil Rights Movement.

Rustin, however, remained in the background for the sake of the movement, only to be sacrificed by its leaders as a political liability.

Bayard Rustin

Also, many leaders in the civil rights movement told Rustin to sit at the back of the bus.

“Rustin hardly appears in all the voluminous literature produced about the 1960s,” said John D’Emilio, author of the book “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.” “He’s a man without a home in history.”

Rustin has been lost in the shadows of history at least in part because he was a gay man, said Angela Bowen, assistant professor of women’s studies at Cal State Long Beach, told the Press-Telegram in Long Beach in 2003.

“Bayard was ostracized particularly by black leaders because they were homophobic. They said he would bring disgrace on them because he was gay,” she said.

“Bayard knew they were little minded, and he was ahead of his time,” Bowen said.

Though some black leaders worried Rustin sexual orientation would be a liability, A. Philip Randolph, president of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, championed Rustin as the march organizer.

Presidential Medal of Freedom

More than 25 years after his death, Rustin was finally acknowledged for his contributions to the nation. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — in 2013. Rustin died in 1987 at the age of 75.

Rustin is still unknown to most people, including the LGBT community, but the National Justice Coalition hopes to change that lack of awareness. It launched the Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemoration Project to encourage others to remember and honor Rustin’s legacy.

Born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania., Rustin was raised by his grandparents and deeply influenced by his grandmother, a fierce advocate for social justice.

In 1942, Rustin went to California on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee to help Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps during the war.

Rustin also was a committed missionary of Gandhian nonviolence. Rustin spent three years, from 1943 to 1946, in a federal penitentiary as a conscientious objector to World War II.

A year later, Rustin organized the first “Freedom Ride” through the South. The riders were beaten, arrested and fined. Rustin served 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang.

Nonviolence champion

In 1956, during the initial stages of the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin met the 26-year-old King, Jr. Rustin schooled the young leader in the mechanics of running a nonviolent protest.

“Rustin’s greatest historical legacy is he did more than anyone to bring the Gandhian message of militant nonviolence to the United States and to the black freedom struggle,” D’Emilio said.

In addition, Bowen told the P-T, “Bayard was so much broader than everybody (in the civil rights movement). “Martin Luther King came along at a time when they needed a person like King. He rose to the occasion and grew into it.

“But a person like Bayard Rustin, who already had all that width and breadth and overview and internationalism, was also smart enough to know that (because of homophobia) he wasn’t going to be the person who was ever going to be leading things,” Bowen said.

Vision of equality

Rustin’s own words on the civil rights movement and gay rights are featured in the book “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin.”

Devon Carbado, co-editor of the book, told the P-T in 2003 that Rustin had a grand vision on equality.

“Rustin approached issues such as gay rights and racial equality from the point of view that all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, race and so forth, belong to the human family,” Carbado said.

“Rustin believed that we are united in a common cause simply because we are people, and the degree to which we allow any group to be singled out for persecution or to be separated out from the rest of the population,” Carbado said, “is a measure of how far we have fallen from this humanitarian ideal.”

Bayard Rustin: The Gay Civil Rights Leader Who Organized the March on Washington

Did you know that Bayard Rustin was a civil rights organizer and activist, best known for his work as adviser to Martin Luther King Jr? Learn more about this unsung activist from, and let your lawmakers know which other civil rights leaders you think should be recognized.

Who Was Bayard Rustin?

Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912. He moved to New York in the 1930s and was involved in pacifist groups and early civil rights protests. Combining non-violent resistance with organizational skills, he was a key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Though he was arrested several times for his own civil disobedience and open homosexuality, he continued to fight for equality. He died in New York City on August 24, 1987.

Early Life and Education

Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He had been raised to believe that his parents were Julia and Janifer Rustin, when in fact they were his grandparents. He discovered the truth before adolescence, that the woman he thought was his sibling, Florence, was in fact his mother, who'd had Rustin with West Indian immigrant Archie Hopkins.

Rustin attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, and Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheney University of Pennsylvania) in Pennsylvania, both historically black schools. In 1937 he moved to New York City and studied at City College of New York. He was briefly involved with the Young Communist League in 1930s before he became disillusioned with its activities and resigned.

Political Philosophy and Civil Rights Career

In his personal philosophy, Rustin combined the pacifism of the Quaker religion, the non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph. During the Second World War he worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-related hiring. After meeting A. J. Muste, a minister and labor organizer, he also participated in several pacifist groups, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Rustin was punished several times for his beliefs. During the war, he was jailed for two years when he refused to register for the draft. When he took part in protests against the segregated public transit system in 1947, he was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks. In 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge for publicly engaging in homosexual activity and was sent to jail for 60 days however, he continued to live as an openly gay man.

By the 1950s, Rustin was an expert organizer of human rights protests. In 1958, he played an important role in coordinating a march in Aldermaston, England, in which 10,000 attendees demonstrated against nuclear weapons.

Martin Luther King and the March on Washington

Rustin met the young civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and began working with King as an organizer and strategist in 1955. He taught King about Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience. He assisted King with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956. Most famously, Rustin was a key figure in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963.

In 1965, Rustin and his mentor Randolph co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor organization for African-American trade union members. Rustin continued his work within the civil rights and peace movements, and was much in demand as a public speaker.

Later Career and Publications

Rustin received numerous awards and honorary degrees throughout his career. His writings about civil rights were published in the collection Down the Line in 1971 and in Strategies for Freedom in 1976. He continued to speak about the importance of economic equality within the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the need for social rights for gays and lesbians.

Bayard Rustin died of a ruptured appendix in New York City on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75.

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Bayard Rustin: Gay Civil Rights Leader and MLK's Adviser

Bayard Rustin: Martin Luther King’s Views on Gay People

This 1987 essay by Bayard Rustin reveals a personal account of MLK's feelings toward gay people.

It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would not have hired me. He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me. He was under such extraordinary pressure about his own sex life. J. Edgar Hoover was spreading stories, and there were very real efforts to entrap him. I think at a given point he had to reach a decision. My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement.

He finally came to the decision that he needed to talk with some people in his organization. Reverend Thomas Kilgore, a good friend of mine and pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, was a man Dr. King turned to. Reverend Kilgore asked Martin to set up a committee to advise him. The committee finally came to the decision that my sex life was a burden to Dr. King. I think it was around July when they advised him that he should ask me to leave. I told Dr. King that if advisors closest to him felt I was a burden, then rather than put him in a position that he had to say leave, I would go. He was just so harassed that I felt it was my obligation to relieve him of as much of that as I could. Someone sent his wife a tape in which he was supposedly having an affair with another woman.

There was also another problem: some of the people in the Democratic Party were distressed at Dr. King’s marching, as he did in 1960 and in 1964, against the conventions of both of the major parties calling for more immediate relief to black people through Congress. Adam Clayton Powell, for some reason I will never understand, actually called Dr. King when he was in Brazil and indicated that he was aware of some relationship between me and Dr. King, which, of course, there was not. This added to his anxiety about additional discussions of sex.

I don’t want you to think that Dr. King was the only civil rights leader who raised these questions. Although Dr. King had been relieved by my officially leaving, he continued to call on me as Mr. Garrow makes clear in his book, Bearing the Cross, over and over. Now this all took place around 1960 but in 1963 when the question came up whether I should be the director of the March on Washington, I got 100 percent cooperation. On this occasion, it was Roy Wilkins who raised the question. Roy was my friend. He told me he was going into the meeting to object. He made it quite clear that he had absolutely no prejudice toward me or toward homosexuality but he said: “I put the movement first above all things, and I believe it is my moral obligation to go into this meeting and say that with all of your talent, I don’t think you should lead this important march. They are not only going to raise the question of homosexuality. Although I know you are a Quaker and I know you paid a heavy price for your conscientious objection, they are going to call you a draft dodger.” He was referring to my three years in prison as a conscientious objector in 1943, ’44, and ’45. “But,” Mr. Wilkins also said, “you were once, and you’ve never said you weren’t, a member of the Young Communist League. Therefore, they are going to raise three questions: the question of homosexuality, the question of draft-dodges, the question of your being a Communist. The fact that you are a Socialist is a problem, because people in the United States don’t differentiate between Socialism and Communism.” We also had a long discussion about how the Communists had co-opted the term Socialist, although the two systems are totally different: one is democratic and one is totalitarian.

Mr. Randolph [who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute] took the view that it was important for him to have me. Mr. Randolph was finally made director of the march. “But I want to warn you before you vote that if I’m made leader, I’m going to be given the privilege of determining my staff,” he said. “I also want you to know I’ll make Bayard Rustin my deputy.” He turned to Martin and said: “Dr. King, how do you vote?” And Dr. King said: “I vote yes.” He turned to Jim Farmer. Jim Farmer said: “I vote yes.” Then he turned to Roy Wilkins. Roy said: “Phil, you’ve got me over a barrel, I’ll go along with you.” So, it was never a prejudicial situation it was that given the attitude at that time, people felt this was a problem. I think there were others who felt: How many problems can a guy have and expect us to elevate him to the directorship of this march?

From an interview conducted by Redvers Jeanmarie, March 1987.

From Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, edited by Don Weise. Copyright 2014. Excerpted by permission of Cleis Press.

The Unapologetically Black, Queer, and Movement-Oriented Activism of Bayard Rustin

Queer history is incomplete without Black history. That’s why we’re chronicling the stories and lives of influential Black queer figures throughout the month of February. Below, we take a look at Bayard Rustin, an influential civil rights activist, queer leader, and Quaker.

While many laud Martin Luther King Jr.’s accomplishments during the civil rights movement, less acknowledged are those of Bayard Rustin, whose upbringing within the nonviolent Quaker community became a huge influence on King and the leadership behind the March on Washington. Rustin was a close advisor to MLK who remained in the shadows of the movement partly due to his sexuality, but their work together was just a sliver of all he accomplished in the six decades he worked as a peace activist and openly gay Black leader.

Rustin was born in West Chester Pennsylvania in 1912 to a young mother who did not have the capability to raise him by herself. Rustin was mostly raised by his grandparents and thought his mother was his sister for much of his young life. His grandmother was a Quaker, and Rustin attributes this upbringing to the development of his activism, with Quaker values like that of the single human family — where no member of the family is considered more important than another — and integrity influencing his decision to come out and live openly as a gay man long before it was commonplace or safe.

It was Rustin’s willingness to embrace his own integrity that shaped his organizing path. In the mid-1930s, Rustin was expelled from Wilberforce University, a historical black college (HBCU), for organizing a strike against the university for the poor quality of the cafeteria food. He later attended Cheney University of Pennsylvania, another HBCU, and was awarded a posthumous “Doctor of Humane Letters” degree at the college’s 2013 commencement. Rustin was also briefly involved in the Young Communists League, quitting after the League demanded he stop protesting racial segregation in the U.S. military. Despite his short stint with the organization, his name was on the FBI’s radar.

A year later, Rustin moved to Harlem and enrolled in City College where he became involved in the effort to free the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine young Black men who had been accused of raping two white women in Alabama. He continued his work alongside the Quakers, and began working with members of the Socialist Party USA — particularly A. Philip Randolph, who went on to become a deep influence on Rustin’s personal philosophy.

Rustin’s life really started heating up at the onslaught of World War II. Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith nonviolent peace organization, as a race relations secretary. FOR director A.J. Muste was uncomfortable with Rustin’s openness about his sexuality, and tirelessly tried to convince Rustin to “change.” Nevertheless, Rustin continued to travel the country as an openly gay man with FOR, speaking out about desegregation. Before the Freedom Rides, Rustin led some of the first attempts to desegregate interstate bus travel. In 1943, he wrote the “Interracial Primer,” warning people that race riots would ensue if integration did not come quickly. In 1944, Rustin was sentenced to three years in prison for failing to appear before the draft board. After angering prison administrators by being openly gay and organizing desegregation protests, he was ultimately transfered to a high security prison and only served 26 months.

Rustin continued to engage in civil disobedience at great personal risk. After his release, he was frequently arrested for protesting colonial rule in Africa and India. In 1947 he continued his freedom rides, this time more formally as the Journey of Reconciliation, an effort meant to test the ruling of Morgan v. the Commonwealth of Virginia, which banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang for violating state Jim Crow laws. In the early 1950s, Rustin made a trip to West Africa where he spoke to Ghanaian and Nigerian independence movement leaders. There, he reaffirmed that the struggle for liberation was not a singularly Black American issue, but a transnational one that affected all of the Black diasporas.

In 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California for “lewd conduct” for having sex with two men in the back of a car. The entire debacle was publicized, and though Rustin had never denied being gay, this new spotlight changed his career trajectory entirely. Rustin pled guilty to “sex perversion,” was registered as a sex offender, and was asked to resign from the FOR he’d spend much of his subsequent career as an activist behind the scenes. In 1955, Rustin was part of the task force that wrote “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” a hugely influential pacifist essay. However, he remained an anonymous contributor, worried that his sexual orientation would be used by critics to dismiss the veracity of the work.

California pardoned a gay civil rights leader. Activists want clemency for more LGBTQ+ prisoners

The California governor has launched an initiative to grant clemency to people historically prosecuted for being gay, starting with a posthumous pardon for Bayard Rustin, a celebrated gay civil rights leader.

Rustin, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr and helped organize the March on Washington, was arrested in 1953 for having consensual sex, convicted under a “vagrancy” law long used to prosecute LGBTQ+ people.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Wednesday that his office would pardon Rustin, who died in 1987, and also allow others subjected to this kind of discriminatory policing to apply for clemency. Rustin, who also helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott and who was given a posthumous presidential medal of freedom by Barack Obama, was sentenced to 60 days in jail and forced to register as a sex offender after his arrest.

Black and LGBTQ+ lawmakers praised the pardon for Rustin, which some of them had formally requested. Some activists and civil rights attorneys, however, said they were eager to see the governor move beyond largely symbolic measures – and address the harms facing queer and transgender people incarcerated today.

“The governor has so much power,” said Colby Lenz, a legal advocate for LGBTQ+ prisoners in California. “It’s great he’s doing this initiative, but it’s painful when I think about visiting so many queer and trans people who are incarcerated who continue to face so many barriers to release.”

Newsom’s new clemency program relates to a law that previously criminalized consensual gay sex, which was repealed in 1975. In 1997, California allowed people convicted under that law to get off the sex offender registry, but that process did not remove their underlying conviction and did not constitute a pardon. The initiative unveiled this week seeks to identify eligible pardon candidates and allow people to apply.

A spokesperson said the office did not have numbers on how many people might be eligible, and it is unclear if anyone currently incarcerated would be affected.

Newsom’s announcement said he was tackling “historic homophobia in the justice system”. But activists said they would like to see the effort extend to contemporary discrimination in the way LGBTQ+ people are arrested, prosecuted, sentenced and ultimately denied release.

Lenz, who is part of a coalition that lobbies the governor’s office for the release of trans prisoners, says she would like to see the pardon effort extend to currently imprisoned trans people, who are disproportionately represented in the system, and can face high rates of violence and abuse inside.

Survived and Punished is one of the partner groups, which advocates for survivors of abuse and domestic violence who were incarcerated after defending themselves, such as the famous case of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life at age 16 for murder, but recently released. There are numerous trans women incarcerated with similar cases in California, said Lenz, who estimated that Newsom has received at least 50 clemency requests on behalf of trans prisoners but has yet to grant any.

Janetta Johnson, a trans rights activist in San Francisco who was formerly incarcerated, agrees that for the trans community “their crimes are survival crimes because of lack of opportunities, lack of access to employment and housing”. Some end up in prison because they fought their abusers, she said, and trans people often face harsher sentences. “[The governor] needs to acknowledge the discrimination and punitive punishment for the queer and trans community.”

Lenz has also advocated for queer cisgender women who have faced homophobic prosecution and abuse inside, and she noted that biases throughout the process can make it especially hard to get pardons and releases for LGBTQ+ people.

Amber-Rose Howard, the executive director for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group that works to reduce the prison population, said she was pleased to see the news about Rustin and the clemency initiative, but that she hoped it would be a first step: “We will not address mass incarceration until we start to think about people convicted of more serious offenses.”

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber and state senator Scott Wiener previously called on Gavin Newsom to posthumously pardon civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

While Rustin’s offense was a misdemeanor, Howard noted that many queer and trans people languishing in California prisons today were locked up for serious felonies, some sentenced to life without parole, meaning they will die inside if not granted a pardon: “I hope the conversation opens up … and I’m really hoping to see a lot of pardons answered.”

Lynly Egyes, the Transgender Law Center legal director, noted that there were a range of laws that were still used in the US to criminalize trans people, such as loitering ordinances that have been described as “walking while trans” offenses. In addition to granting pardons to people criminalized in this way, a governor’s pardon power could also save immigrants from detention and deportation when they are facing removal due to a criminal conviction.

“I would really hope the governor is using pardons to help all people who need to be released,” she said.

Newsom has commuted the sentences of just over 20 people in his first year in office. His predecessor, Jerry Brown, issued commutation orders for 283 people.

A Newsom spokesperson did not respond to questions about advocates’ calls for broader pardons for LGBTQ+ people.

The announcement on Wednesday echoes the recent apologies from police officials about the historic cases of law enforcement violence against LGBTQ+ people in the infamous Stonewall riot and similar attacks.

Newsom similarly made made history when he formally apologized to Native Americans last year, acknowledging the brutal genocide and “war of extermination”. Indigenous leaders in the state praised the announcement but also called for specific reparations.

Watch the video: The Gay Civil Rights Activist Nearly Erased From History (May 2022).


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