Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester Pennsylvania. He led a life that early on had him pegged as a rising academic who was noted for his keen mind and sometimes unpopular thinking. Actually his thinking was only truly unpopular to the scattered racists and bigots which he was forced to deal with on a daily basis. As such, Bayard often began censoring his words but not his thoughts. Unfortunately in that era many people felt that a man of color, no matter how bright he may be, was to be seen and not heard. Bayard rose above it all and vigorously began pursuing his dreams which led his to play a pivotal role in American history.
Bayard was raised by his maternal grandparents, his grandmother was a Quaker, which played a tremendous role in the way he viewed the world and his place in it. His grandfather was affiliated to the A.M.E. Church, but what really led to young Bayard seeing he could make difference in the world wasn’t the strong religious background he came from, but his grandmothers membership in the NAACP. Julia, his grandmother, was what would be called a “behind the scenes player” these days and regularly hosted James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois at their home for meals and discussions. It was these men along with his grandparents that molded Bayard. Though they never encouraged him to be proactive, but rather make his own decisions and follow them, he often chose the same path as his elders. He was most noted for his campaigning against Jim Crow Laws as a youth.
Eventually Bayard went on to attend Wilberforce University but dropped out before taking his final exams needed for graduation in 1936. He moved on to Cheney State Teachers College where he began taking courses in activism offered by the American Friends Service Committee. He moved to Harlem a year later and began taking more courses at City College of New York. In this two year period he became involved in three things that would change his life: He joined the Young Communist league, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and he became very vocal in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys who were nine young black men wrongfully accused of raping two white women.
Not much changed for Rustin until 1941 when he became disillusioned with the Communist Party. What initially drew Bayard to that organization was their support for civil rights, however when Stalin ordered American Communist party members to discontinue work on that issue and focus it instead on getting the U.S. into WWII, Bayard had enough. He quickly changed allegiance and began working with and supporting anti-communist socialists. Bayard was one of the three organizers that planned to march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces, but Roosevelt made the change on his own before the march ever took place. With that plan scrapped, he instead went to California and helped organize protests against the internment of Japanese-Americans in segregated camps under the guise of national security.
In 1942 Bayard along with three other activist formed CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) which was conceived as a pacifist organization based on the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. Being a leader of CORE which was a pacifist organization meant that Bayard was arrested for violating the Selective Service Act and sent to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary from 1944-1946. He didn’t roll over during that time and do nothing, he instead organized protests against segregated dining facilities and the British Rule of India. After that Rustin was regularly arrested for protests and all too often manufactured charges which usually didn’t stick, but did serve to harass him.
All of this was just the precursor to his greater works regarding civil rights. He along with George Houser organized the first Freedom Ride (The Journey of Reconciliation) which was designed to test the ban on racial discrimination in interstate travel. This was opposed by the NAACP as well as most of the big name civil rights organizations as being too antagonistic and improperly timed, but they did so anyway. During the trip they were arrested several times including, on of which led to a 22 day stint on a North Carolina chain gang. What he did wasn’t popular, but his seven arrests proved the law was being ignored and led to the major organizations pressing the issue with the government through grassroots movements.
The next 5 years were different for Rustin as he became heavily involved with African Civil Rights Leaders and began spending more time in California. Bayard was still being arrested regularly, one of which exposed his secret. Bayard Rustin was gay. He served a 60 day sentence in California on a charge of “sex Perversion” which was plead down from sodomy. He refused to be ashamed of his sexuality which led to being fired from FOR “Fellowship of Reconciliation) of which he had been a member since 1941, and was then often kept on the sidelines as many other organizations weren’t sure he was the proper image they wanted to portray. Still he quickly landed a new job with the War Resisters league. While with WAR he published “Speak Truth To Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence” which is regarded as one of the best pacifist essays ever produced in America. At his request, his name was kept off the document for fear it may be disregarded or hurt the credibility of WAR duet to his known homosexuality. While he took no shame in being gay, he also realized it would color the way people read his words, and may disregard them as the “words of a homo.”
In 1956 he Left WAR to become and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Ghandian tactics of pacifist resistance. While he was initially supposed to only help with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he stayed on to help form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King in 1957. No matter how great a job Rustin did, his homosexuality was held over his neck like an axe. In 1960 Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. forced Rustin to resign from the SCLC or have his homosexuality brought up in on the floor of Congress. While Bayard hated it, he complied. As unjust as this was, it got Bayard thing as much about gay rights as African American rights.
Rustin was forced further from the forefront after this until 1963 when he helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. S.C. Senator Strom Thurmond began waving about a picture for anyone who cared to look of Bayard talking to Dr. King who was in a bathtub implying that since Bayard was a known homosexual, King must be too in an attempt to smear their names with the public. As such, the NAACP thanked Bayard for his help, told him he would receive no credit for his efforts, and showed him the door. As the decade advanced, Bayard became involved with the Democratic Party and President Lyndon Johnson which landed him out of favor with the Black Power Movement who labeled him a sellout. Rustin began moving away from radical politics and accepted a position on the Board of Trustees at the University of Notre Dame in the early 1970’s.
While Rustin was never terribly vocal about gay rights at the time feeling his days of hands on activism were over, he remained a player behind the scenes, much like his grandmother did when he was a child in her house. he kept his name and face largely out of the press but was always available to share his knowledge of activism with any gay rights leader who sought it. In 1986 he changed his stance on this and began getting vocal again testifying before the New York State Assembly on behalf of the Gay Rights Bill. He stated that the LGBT community had become the civil rights “barometer” in America as they are “the community which is most easily mistreated.”
Sadly he died on August 24 of 1987 just when he was getting started on the gay rights movement in the public eye. His legacy with the LGBT community is secure though as two high schools were named for him, one in his hometown of West Chester PA, and one in Chelsea NY, which is slated to close in 2012. He also has a library and Social Justice Center that bear his name as well as the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition (BRC) in San Francisco.
Bayard Rustin is a man that was marginalized and scapegoated all his life. First for being born black, then for being born gay, two things he had no control over. Even when he was pushed aside, hidden, and discredited in the most personal of ways on the floors of Congress, he continued to believe in the country and system and fought peacefully for equality for all people, black white, brown gay, and straight nearly 60 years. While his role in the gay and civil rights movement were often ignored, he is a man whose time has come. he deserves now the credit he should have received while living.
Anders on, Jervis. Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen
D’Emilio, John. Lost Prophet: Bayard Rustin and the Quest for Peace and Justice in America
Haskins, James. Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement