This article will feature in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)

Few can claim to have had an impact on as much social change and emancipation as Bayard Rustin. For decades, unrecognised for his work and deliberately forgotten, Rustin made possible many of the key cornerstones of civil rights, like the March on Washington, which would otherwise have not seen the light of day, or at least not as successfully as it did. 

Bayard Rustin at a news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963

A second-class citizen for his skin, and a criminal for who he loved, Rustin’s activism for black civil rights put him in the line of fire at a time when being openly gay menat he was already a target, even within the civil rights movement. However, Rustin’s organisational brilliance and unwavering commitment to the cause bought him unlikely allies in the movement, who were willing to overlook his ‘personal immorality’ for the results they so desperately needed.

Born in a small town in Pennsylvania, Bayard was heavily influenced by his grandmother Julia Rustin, a Quaker and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). As a young man Rustin had campaigned against the Jim Crow laws in his hometown and was later expelled from Wilberforce University for organising a strike. 

In 1941, Bayard met the African-American trade unionist Philip Randolph. Together they planned a March on Washington later that year to protest discrimination against and abuse of black soldiers. The march never went ahead because of President Roosevelt’s ban on discrimination in the military, but many civil rights figures noticed Rustin’s exceptional ability to organise. From here, he and other activists founded the nonviolent resistance group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).

Inspired by the success of Mahatma Gandhi, Bayard visited India to study the tactics of civil disobedience. He used his findings to convince CORE’s foot soldiers, largely students, that the same success could be achieved for black civil rights in America. 

Following a Supreme Court ruling that transport segregation was unconstitutional, Rustin went on to plan the Journey of Reconciliation. He joined seven black men and eight white men from CORE on a two-week endeavour to test segregated transport in the Deep South. Arriving in Alabama, they were quickly arrested, with Rustin and two others being sent to chain gangs (shackled forced labour units). Despite failing to complete their journey, Rustin’s efforts brought a great deal of attention to anti-black violence in the South and the failure of the federal government to act. 

Despite facing disapproval from many in the NAACP at the time, Rustin’s campaign helped to inspire them to replicate this tactic in 1955 with Rosa Park’s highly publicised arrest. Dr. Martin Luther King, a local pastor, had organised a bus boycott in response, and Rustin was invited to help. 

 Rustin and Cleveland Robinson on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963.

Now King’s main advisor, they together formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with Rustin being instrumental in the group’s adoption of non-violent civil disobedience. 

Whilst planning a march outside the Democratic National Convention with King, Adam Clayton Powell – a fellow civil rights leader and Democratic Congressman – threatened King that if the march was not called off he would tell the press that King and Rustin were gay lovers. King, in one of his weaker moments, called the march off and put a distance between himself and Rustin, who later resigned from the SCLC.

Despite this, Rustin put the movement ahead of personal attacks and joined Philip Randolph in his call to resurrect the March on Washington. The aim was to influence the Kennedy administration by bringing together the many civil rights groups to campaign collectively on economic issues and for a comprehensive Civil Rights Act. 

But once again, Rustin’s homosexuality would be used against him. The segregationist Strom Thurmond rallied against him in the Senate and produced an FBI photograph of Rustin talking to King whilst King was bathing, implying a relationship, which they both denied. These homophobic attacks also came from the movement itself, with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP refusing to allow Rustin to be the movement’s front man. As a result, Randolph took the role of chief organiser, with Rustin as his deputy. 

From the shadows Rustin had worked tirelessly to make this unprecedented mass gathering possible. Transportation, sanitation, food and accommodation were all meticulously addressed. Rustin found off-duty police officers to be marshals for the demonstration, found bus captains to direct traffic, organised doctors to create first aid stations and scheduled the podium speakers.

Despite Wilkins’ insistence that Rustin not be a public figure, Rustin publicly announced the march’s list of demands in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He and Randolph appeared on the cover of Life magazine, identifying them as the march’s leaders.

Rustin would go on to organise other civil rights protests, but would ultimately butt heads with a movement entering that was entering a more militant phase and becoming increasingly disillusioned with Rustin’s more compromising politics.

Towards the end of his life, Rustin, urged by his partner, Walter Naegle – whom he adopted to gain legal protections in an era before there were civil unions – had encouraged him to take on gay activism. Testifying on behalf of New York’s Gay Rights Bill of 1986, Rustin gave a speech, ‘The New Niggers are Gay’, outraging black civil rights patriarchs and clergymen who were appalled by his suggestion that gay persecution was an injustice on par to Jim Crow. 

It is unsurprising that the torchbearers of the civil rights story chose to forget Rustin. He never claiming to represent the gay rights movement. Indeed, he wrote that he ‘did not “come out of the closet” voluntarily – circumstances formed [him] out.’ But his mere existence challenged the conscience of a community not yet ready to accept this side of a civil rights hero.