The name Bayard Rustin remains largely in the footnotes of African American history.
Rustin was the lead organizer for the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” He organized the Freedom Rides in 1961, and provided intellectual heft to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent movement.
In 1948, Rustin traveled to India to learn more about nonviolent civil disobedience ideas and helped introduce those teachings to King. Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Rustin became a close confidant of King.
In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Though his contributions made America better, Rustin was black, a socialist, and openly gay in the 1950s — a trifecta that guaranteed persona non grata status in the public discourse.
In 1953, Rustin was arrested for violating California’s “morals charge” by having same-gender sex. He was eventually convicted of misdemeanor vagrancy and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. The offense landed him on the state’s sex offender list, damaging his reputation as a leader in the movement.
A decade later, on July 2, 1963, a planning meeting for the upcoming March on Washington was held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York consisting of King, labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, James Farmer of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), specifically to discuss Rustin’s involvement.
Wilkins was concerned Rustin’s homosexuality and associated arrest and conviction would be used to harm the efforts of the March.
A compromise was reached, led by King and others that Randolph would lead the March, but he would be free to select his deputy, and Randolph had already made it clear at the meeting that his deputy would be Rustin.
Soon after, as Wilkins feared, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose prior speeches had included Rustin’s previous Communist affiliation, rose on the Senate floor to place a copy of Rustin’s 1953 morals charge booking into the congressional record.
But such revelations did not have the political/media traction that many were hoping as few newspapers carried Thurmond’s latest allegations. But in spite of these external pressures, the organizing of the march, led by Rustin and a coalition composed of a few paid staff and several hundred volunteers, and minimal resources, pulled off the largest rally for economic and civil rights that the nation’s capital had seen to date.
King would eventually distance himself from Rustin, succumbing to blackmail threats by New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who planned to leak fake reports of a sexual affair between Rustin and King.
The state of California recently took a long overdue step as Gov. Gavin Newsom pardoned Rustin, 67 years after his conviction.
“Mr. Rustin was criminalized because of stigma, bias, and ignorance,” Newsom said in his pardon statement. “With this act of executive clemency, I acknowledge the inherent injustice of this conviction, an injustice that was compounded by his political opponents’ use of the record of this case to try to undermine him, his associates, and the civil rights movement.”
“Generations of LGBT people — including countless gay men — were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, chairman of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. “This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”
Perhaps Rustin remains in the shadows of civil rights lore because he was a socialist and openly gay. The combination of the Red Scare and homophobia was potentially enough to derail a movement that simply wanted what America had already committed to paper.
History is never as clean as one wishes it to be. In retrospect, it is easy to see the hypocrisy of Strom Thurmond, known for his pro-segregationist stand, having fathered a mixed race daughter, as he entered Rustin’s morals charge conviction into the congressional record.
But internally, Rustin faced many of the same toxins as those provided by the dominant culture. It was not just a segregationist who worked to keep Rustin’s legacy a secret, but also many who claimed the mantle of the civil rights movement.
If one is a beneficiary of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Rustin is a vital part of that legacy. Any teenager with the courage to “come out” to friends and family about their sexual orientation possesses the courage of Rustin. And anyone with the strength to speak against injustice speaks with the strength of Rustin.
That’s not just black history or LGBT history, but American history.