How Bayard Rustin, a Gay Man, Changed Civil Rights

Bayard Rustin. U.S. Department of Labor/

Bayard Rustin isn’t a household name, but his contributions to the civil rights movement rival those of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin organized the March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. A confidante and advisor to King, he introduced the civil rights leader to the principles of pacifism. While Rustin’s race, sexual orientation and radical politics marginalized him during the civil rights movement, in death he’s emerged as an icon to blacks, gays and progressives.

A Young Activist

Bayard Rustin was born to Florence Rustin, a teen mother of Caribbean ancestry, and an absentee father on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Penn. His grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin, helped raise him. They taught him the importance of equality, in part, by teaching him the Quaker faith, according to the book Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen. Even as a young man, Rustin exhibited a strong sense of self, coming out as gay and engaging in activism. A high school football player, he reportedly demonstrated against the local restaurant that served food to his white teammates but refused to serve him.

When he moved to New York in his mid-twenties, Rustin had already studied at the historically black colleges Wilberforce University and Cheney State Teachers College. In the Empire State, he enrolled at City College of New York and joined the Young Communist League, ultimately dropping out when the party asked him not to push for racial desegregation in the military.

His activism made him an FBI target.

Undeterred, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which spawned the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. As an activist with the group, he spoke about civil rights issues nationwide and served more than two years in prison for being a “draft dodger” during World War II.

After his stint in prison, Rustin participated in CORE’s 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, described as a predecessor to the Freedom Rides, because it challenged racial segregation in interstate travel. The move led to him winding up on a North Carolina chain gang. Despite this setback, Rustin continued to fight for justice, traveling to India in 1948 to study the nonviolent principles of the recently assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.

Rustin’s Partnership With King

Rustin and King’s legendary partnership began when the latter traveled to Alabama to help organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. Rustin introduced King to the nonviolent principles for which the slain civil rights leader is now known. A few years later, King briefly parted ways with Rustin when New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to spread a rumor that the two men were lovers to retaliate against them for planning a march outside of the Democratic National Convention. Rustin’s sexual orientation had been documented. He not only lived as an openly gay man but was also arrested on a morals charge related to his homosexuality in 1953 in Pasadena, Calif. The charge resulted in Rustin stepping down from FOR.

After a cooling off period, King and Rustin reunited in 1962 when labor leader A. Philip Randolph recruited Rustin to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, first conceived of in the 1940s. Randolph served as director of the march and Rustin as deputy because the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins suggested that Rustin’s past could jeopardize the groundbreaking event.

"I don't want you leading that march on Washington, because you know I don't give a damn about what they say, but publicly I don't want to have to defend the draft dodging," Wilkins told him. "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. 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."

Rustin may not have held the title of director of the March on Washington, but he remained the man who organized it, a gargantuan task.

“We planned out precisely the number of toilets that would be needed for a quarter of a million people … how many doctors, how many first aid stations, what people should bring with them to eat in their lunches,” Rustin said, according to the biography Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.

The march proved to be a success, attracting as many as 300,000 people. It featured speeches from King, Myrlie Evers, John Lewis and Rustin’s reading of the march’s demands, which included effective civil rights legislation, voting rights and fair housing. For organizing the march, Rustin and Randolph appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine in September 1963. And when King won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, Rustin planned the activist’s trip abroad.

The Movement Winds Down

After King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968, Rustin led the memorial march and asked for fair pay for the sanitation workers Kind hag advocated for in the Tennessee city. In the latter part of the civil rights movement, some activists accused Rustin of selling out. That’s not only because he began to focus on issues outside of civil rights, such as economic justice and international causes, but also because he became more willing to compromise. Later, in the 1980s, Rustin also spoke out for gay rights.

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s life partner, told TheGrio website in 2013 that Rustin had not given in to the establishment.

“I think when you are in a position of working with power, there is only so far you can go to influence power,” Naegle said. “Whereas, if you are working on the outside, sooner or later you will probably have to compromise, but it’s at the point where your goals are in sight, where you’re gaining some of your ends.”   

Rustin died on Aug. 24, 1987, after his appendix burst. His writings about civil rights can be found in the books Down the Line (1971) and Strategies for Freedom (1976).The White House announced in 2013 that President Barack Obama would posthumously grant Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Bayard Rustin, a Gay Man, Changed Civil Rights." ThoughtCo, Mar. 7, 2017, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2017, March 7). How Bayard Rustin, a Gay Man, Changed Civil Rights. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Bayard Rustin, a Gay Man, Changed Civil Rights." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 17, 2017).