feature: the forgotten story of bayard rustin: the gay pacifist socialist who organized the march on washington
February 6, 2015
There’s no national holiday to recognize Bayard Rustin, no conspicuously under-maintained road named for him, and no-one quotes him out of context to make their points, but there are few people as instrumental to the Civil Rights Movement. He’s the man who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he introduced King to Ghandian non-violence, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Despite his accomplishments, Bayard Rustin was beaten, imprisoned, and largely written out of the history books for having the courage to be openly gay, proudly socialist, and fight for freedom and equality.
By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, tapped a 29 year old Rustin as youth organizer for a proposed march on Washington to protest racist federal employment rules. Randolph, the founding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful black trade union, proposed a march of 100,000 black union workers on Washington. At the time, a demonstration of that size in Washington was unheard of. Though organizing work was begun, the march itself never happened. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to preempt it, which barred discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
10 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, in 1942 Rustin boarded a bus in Louisville for Nashville and sat in the second row. The driver asked him to move to the back, but Rustin refused. Tennessee police stopped the bus and arrested and beat Rustin, though he was eventually released without charges. Two years later in 1944, he began a two year prison sentence for refusing to register for the draft. Raised Quaker, Rustin had a commitment to non-violence, and was a conscientious objector to the war. Reportedly, the government misplaced his conscientious objector card. He continued to organize with the Congress of Racial Equality while in prison, and became active in the struggle against British colonial rule in India.
Upon his release, Rustin and CORE founder George Houser organized the first Freedom Rides to test the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Though the NAACP criticized CORE’s Ghandian tactics as meek, their 1947 direct actions inspired the famous Freedom Rides of 1961. Rustin was arrested and spent 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang. He published an article detailing his experience that lead to the reform of prison chain gangs.
Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy had a huge impact on Rustin. Krishnalal Shridharani’s 1939 book War Without Violence was a major inspiration, and guided his philosophy and approach to activism. Rustin made plans to travel to India to study under Gandhi in 1948. Though Gandhi was assassinated before Rustin was able to make it to India, he spent time studying with Gandhi’s family and followers. The skills and ideas imparted on that trip helped shape his organizing tactics. Rustin would play an instrumental role guiding the non-violent tactics of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Though his sexual orientation was never kept a secret, it was generally ignored by the movement. He says in a 1987 interview with Redvers Jeanmarie, “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.”
During the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin became a key advisor to King, and trained him in the non-violent tactics King is deified for advocating. When Bayard Rustin arrived at Montgomery, King kept guns in his house and had armed guards stationed outside. Rustin promptly changed that. Though King personally had no issue with Rustin’s sexuality, the oppression Rustin experienced as a gay man became a liability when Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. called him out as an “immoral element” in the Civil Rights Movement. A 1953 conviction for “sex perversion” (as gay sex was called in California) had led to a 60 day prison sentence. Powell threatened to expose Rustin, and intimated a sexual relationship between Rustin and King. Whether this threat was the result of Powell, one of only two black congressmen, and the most politically powerful black man in the country, feeling the rise of these young radicals as a threat to his power, or whether he truly had the movement’s best interests at heart has been a matter of speculation for decades. Rustin himself described it simply as “some reason I will never understand,” and chose to leave Montgomery.
Once again, in 1963, Rustin’s sexual orientation nearly became a liability for the movement leading up to the March on Washington. As the March on Washington began to take shape, the SCLC leadership voted whether to allow Rustin to handle its logistics. Though he was well established by 1963 and reputed as the best organizer of mass demonstrations in the country, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins worried that his arrest record for being a gay man and conscientious war objector, as well as his onetime membership in the Young Communist League could become a liability. Key organizer A. Phillip Randolph stood up for his longtime collaborator, saying “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. I also want to let you know I’ll make Bayard Rustin my deputy.” The leadership voted to stand behind Rustin.
Wilkins’ concerns proved valid months later when segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond read Rustin’s arrest record into the congressional record in an attempt to humiliate him and force him out. The incident backfired, as anyone within the SCLC leadership who had been split on backing Rustin rallied around him, not wanting to appear sympathetic to the notoriously racist Thurmond. Bayard Rustin’s organizing work on the march pulled together an enormous coalition of allies, with the intent of showing to an apathetic President Kennedy that there was widespread support for the Civil Rights Act. That the historically unprecedented march was such a success owes to the hard work of Bayard Rustin who personally oversaw every detail, from the speakers, to the transportation, to the garbage cleanup.
“The march ended for me when we had finally made sure we had not left one piece of paper, not a cup, nothing. We had a five hundred man clean-up squad and I called, went back to the hotel, I got Mr. Randolph and I said, ‘Chief, I want you see that there is not a piece of paper or any dirt, or filth or anything left here.’ And Mr. Randolph went to thank me and tears began to come down his cheeks. And at that point of course I could scarcely contain myself, but I knew that if Mr. Randolph finally was satisfied and that we were now going to get a bill that the march had proved to be a great emotional experience.”
After the march, Rustin branched out into labor, anti-nuclear proliferation, anti-Apartheid, and LGBT rights organizing. Rustin had a minimal role in the March on Selma. Though criminally never mentioned by name in the recent film Selma, which took great pains to name check the major players in the movement, by 1965 he had taken more of a backstage role.
He saw the Vietnam War as the event that fractured the Civil Rights Movement and halted progress. Many white coalition members saw the war as a more immediate concern and left active participation in the movement. Meanwhile King’s vocal opposition to the war put him at odds with movement leaders who wanted to work within the Democratic Party for change. It has taken decades for the Civil Rights Movement to recover from those fractures.
By the 1970’s Rustin’s focus was on international advancement of rights and gay rights. Then in his 60’s, Rustin settled down with Walter Naegle. Though 40 years his junior, Rustin and Naegle had a supportive, loving relationship until Rustin’s death at 75 in 1987. His last years were spent doing what Bayard Rustin did best, maybe better than anyone: building coalitions for the advancement of rights. He believed strongly that only by working together with other groups fighting against injustice can any group succeed.
“Well, I think the most important thing I have to say is that they should try to build coalitions of people for the elimination of all injustice. Because if we want to do away with the injustice to gays it will not be done because we get rid of the injustice to gays. It will be done because we are forwarding the effort for the elimination of injustice to all. And we will win the rights for gays, or blacks, or Hispanics, or women within the context of whether we are fighting for all. A good example of this is the present Reagan administration. If anyone thinks they’re going to get anything out of the Reagan administration for any particular group, they’re wrong! You have to all combine and fight a head-on battle—in the name of justice and equality—and even that’s going to be difficult. But if we let ourselves get separated so that we’re working for gays or school children or the aged, we’re in trouble.”
For those interested in learning more about Bayard Rustin, check out the fantastic documentary Brother Outsider, as well as the collection of letters: I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters. And of course it’s worth checking out the multiple albums the strong tenor recorded over the course of his long, varied career. Did we not mention that he was a blues and gospel singer on the side? We should have led with that.
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