Bayard Rustin was a leader in the US civil rights movement. He was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr; in particular regarding strategies for non-violent resistance which he had observed while working with Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian struggle for independence from British rule. A committed pacifist, Rustin was jailed between 1944 and 1946 for refusing military service. Typically, in prison he organised demonstrations against segregated dining facilities.
He was instrumental as an activist for civil rights from the 1940s onward. He developed methods of civil disobedience and political organising that shaped the actions of the US civil rights movement at its apex – from the Freedom Rides against bus segregation (he was arrested for defying bus segregation 13 years before Rosa Parks), to the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs collaborating with union leader, Phillip A Randolph, on its organisation (Randolph and Rustin had called off a similar march in 1941 after winning assurances of reform from President Roosevelt). A highly skilled organiser, he bolstered Martin Luther King Jr’s support through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and inspired the next generation of activists through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
After the passage of civil rights legislation (1964/5), he sought to integrate racial justice into the largely white US labour movements and connect the struggles for human rights to economic justice on the American political left. He became honorary chairman of the Socialist Party of America in 1972.
In 1953, Bayard was arrested and imprisoned for 60 days for ‘sex perversion’, after being caught having sex with another man in a parked car. His sexual orientation caused him to be sidelined by many, including by himself; choosing to remain in the background rather than allow his notoriety to detract from the message. He was forced from the board of the SCLC, later, pictures of Rustin with MLK Jr were circulated by the FBI in order to undermine the civil rights movement. The NAACP leadership sought (unsuccessfully) to hide his role in organising the March on Washington.
Rustin only became vocal about gay rights later in life. In order to provide security for his 30 year-old partner Walter Neagle, he took the unconventional step of formally adopting him in 1982. When Joseph Beam approached him in 1986 to contribute to In The Life, in commendable humility he responded;
I was not involved in the struggle for gay rights as a youth. …I did not “come out of the closet” voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights
Nonetheless, in line with Rustin’s behind-the-scenes approach, his unapologetic stance regarding his sexuality is credited with persuading Supreme Court judge, Thurgood Marshall, to dissent from a 1986 decision on gay rights, that prepared the ground for later reform.
Rustin died while on a humanitarian mission to Haiti in 1987. His reputation as a civil rights leader was less celebrated than deserved, due in part to homophobia and in part to his late political ‘conversion’ to neo-conservatism that gained him praise from Ronald Reagan.
In 2013, Barack Obama posthumously awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Honour.
Organise like Bayard
BlackOutUK works to amplify the voices and increase the visibility of Black queer men in the UK – not out of vanity, but because we believe we have contributions to make to the communities of which we are part; contributions that are currently undervalued and poorly understood. Inspired by Bayard Rustin, we know that by working together we are more likely to be successful in addressing the racisms and homophobia that Black queer men in the UK face.
We are stepping up our organising work over the coming months. In August, we will be hosting an event with Black Thrive at which Black LGBT people will be invited to influence policy by holding their local health services to account, and collaborating with the Kinfolk Network to build a refreshed Black movement for racial justice. If you would like further information about either event get in touch.
Read more about Bayard Rustin and his legacy
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