Bayard Taylor Rustin a life long activist, who was the unknown hero” of the civil rights movement and the man behind Martin Luther King Jr, on the famous March on Washington. His life long activism helped advance the civil rights movement as well as LGBT rights.
Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, to Florence Rustin, one of eight children of Julia and Janifer Rustin of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Been born out of wedlock Julia and Janifer decided to raise young Bayard as their son, the youngest of the large Rustin family. His grandmother had been raised a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), and even though she attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination of her husband, she impressed on the children she raised certain Quaker principles: the equality of all human beings before God, the vital need for nonviolence, the importance of dealing with everyone with love and respect. She was also a member of the NAACP.
Rustin began his impressive political career at an early age after an education at Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College and City College of New York (never received B.A.).
Following under the influence of his grandmother he began his activist career in 1937, by training at the American Friends Service Committee and became organizer for the Youth Communist League. He quit Youth Communist League in 1941. And during that year became a colleague of A. Philip Randolph, President of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Race Relations Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
In 1942 Rustin was the field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Colleague of Norman Thomas, a leader in the democratic socialist movement, and helped plan the Journey of Reconciliation "freedom ride" in 1947 which paved way for the freedom rides in the early 1960's. After being arrested, Rustin's experiences on a chain gang were chronicled on The New York Post which initiated an investigation that eliminated chain gangs in North Carolina. During the decade he assisted in lobbying President Truman to eliminate segregation in the military.
Beginning of the 1950's Rustin organized the Committee to Support South African Resistance (American Committee on Africa). In 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena, California; originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he eventually pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of "sex perversion" (as consensual sodomy was officially referred to in California at the time) for an incident in a car with two men. He served 60 days in jail. This was the first time that his homosexuality had come to public attention, yet he remained candid about his sexuality, which was still criminalized throughout the US. After his conviction, he was fired from FOR, though he became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League. The charges would follow him the rest of his career.
But in February 1956, he caught the attention of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when MLK recruited him as an assistant, colleauge and organizer for his civil rights cause. When he arrived in Montgomery to assist with the the bus boycott, MLK had not personally embraced nonviolence yet. In fact, there were guns inside King’s house, and armed guards posted at his doors. Rustin persuaded boycott leaders to adopt complete nonviolence, from his grandmother's Quaker's roots, and teaching them Gandhian nonviolent direct protest.
Working with MLK he organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, in 1957, and helped form the Recruitment and Training Program (R-T-P) during the 1960's.
He clashes with elected officials both black (Adam Clayton Powell) and white (Strom Thurmond) who tried to use Rustin’s sexuality as a way to discredit him. Many African-American leaders were concerned that Rustin's sexual orientation and Communist past would undermine support for the civil rights movement. U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was a member of the SCLC's board, forced Rustin's resignation from the SCLC in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin's morals charge in Congress. Although Rustin was open about his sexual orientation and his conviction was a matter of public record, it had not been discussed widely outside the civil rights leadership.
When Rustin and A. Phillips Randolph organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Senator Strom Thurmond railed against Rustin as a "Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual" and produced an FBI photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing, to imply that there was a same-sex relationship between the two. Both men denied the allegation of an affair, but, despite King's support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not want Rustin to receive any public recognition for his role in planning the march—though, in fact, he did become quite well-known.
After the March on Washington, Rustin organized the New York City School Boycott. When Rustin was invited to speak at the University of Virginia in 1964, school administrators tried to ban him, out of fear that he would organize another school boycott there. He went on to participate in anti-war demonstration during Vietnam War and helped found the A. Phillip Randolph Institute (APRI). Later he helped found the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Rights, serve as Chairman of the Executive committee of Freedom House. Hi report South Africa: Is Peaceful Change Possible? in 1983 led to the formation of Project South Africa.
Apart from his career as an activist, he was also fun-loving, mischievous, artistic, gifted with a fine singing voice, and known as an art collector who sometimes found museum-quality pieces in New York City trash. The historian John D’Emilio calls Rustin the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement.
Before his death, Rustin wrote several essays, recorded songs and received numerous honorary doctorates while continuing his involvement as an officer on numerous human rights committees until his death in 1987. He was survived by his partner of 10 years, Walter Naegle.
His biography is particularly important for LGBT Americans highlighting the major contributions of a gay man to ending official segregation in America. Bayard Rustin stands at the confluence of the great struggles for civil, legal and human rights by African-Americans and LGBT Americans. Even today despite all the advances made there are still divides between race,orientation and even the rick and poor his eloquent voice is still needed.
At least two high schools have been named for Rustin. Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities (formerly Humanities High School and Charles Evans Hughes High School) is located in the Chelsea section of New York City, which in January of his year,the NYC Department of Education announced that they would be closing the school by 2012 due to poor performance. The remaining school is the Bayard Rustin High School is located in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Other public building named for Rustin include the Bayard Rustin Library at the Affirmations Gay/Lesbian Community Center in Ferndale, MI and the Bayard Rustin Social Justice Center in Conway, Arkansas.
In July 2007, with the permission of the Estate of Bayard Rustin, a group of San Francisco Bay Area African American LGBT community leaders formed the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition (BRC) to promote greater participation in the electoral process, advance civil and human rights issues, and generally promote the legacy of Mr. Rustin.
“Twenty-five, thirty years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.” - Bayard Rustin, 1987