March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987
Notable: Political Organizer
Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandparents were Quakers who instilled within him the belief of all people being equal. Rustin’s grandmother, in particular, was a member of the NAACP which brought young Rustin into contact with W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and James Weldon Johnson.
There are stories of Rustin showing signs of being a budding activist as a teen. He staged an unofficial sit-in at a movie theater which resulted in his arrest and demanded that Black athletes be allowed to stay at the same hotel as their White teammates on a school trip. Later as a student at City College of New York, he joined the Young Communist League, was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and helped to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Rustin was arrested and jailed numerous times including an instance in 1944 for refusing to register for the draft.
While at FOR, Rustin had the opportunity to meet and work with A. Philip Randolph on the March on Washington Movement of the 1940s. He also became involved with organizing early iterations of what would become the Freedom Rides.
By the early 1950s, Randolph had become a mentor to Rustin and encouraged him to meet and work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama. Rustin became an assistant and advisor to Dr. King and is credited with getting him to fully accept the philosophy of non-violence and assisting in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In his personal life, Rustin lived as an openly gay man. Yet, despite his important contributions to various facets of the Civil Rights Movement, his sexual orientation was still often regarded as a liability and sometimes used for blackmail. In 1953 he was either fired or forced to resign from FOR after he was arrested in California for having sexual intercourse in a car with a man.
Plans began to develop for a march at the 1960 Democratic National Convention (DNC) to protest against the Democrats’ weak response to civil rights. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was called upon to put an end to the march. He threatened to tell the press that King and Rustin were involved in a homosexual affair which caused King to distance himself from Rustin.
In 1962, Rustin was again called upon to participate in the planning of the March on Washington. Roy Wilkins raised concerns about Rustin’s previous involvement with communist organizations, homosexuality, and promiscuity being used as a distraction. It was decided that Rustin would be a key orchestrator of the March on Washington but not a prominent public face.
Following the march, Rustin continued to participate in various civil rights activities. This included advising the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 DNC. Rustin fell out of favor with the MFDP when he encouraged them to accept a compromise that would have just given honorary seats to the MFDP while offering voting seats to the segregationist delegation.
As time progressed, Rustin became more directly involved with political and union organizations. He foresaw that the Black working class which had come to depend upon high-paying manufacturing jobs that required low skills would face job losses and shortages. For the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin advocated for the Black community collaborating with political parties, labor unions, and other predominantly White organizations.
Some alleged that in exchange for personal gain and favor he sold out to the Democratic Party and became an opponent to the Civil Rights Movement as it entered a more militant phase. Rustin was against the ideologies of Black power and Black nationalism as he believed that they could not be realistically implemented and would be off-putting to potential White allies.
He later publicly supported neoconservatives, opponents to affirmative action, and the communist containment policy of the Vietnam War (though he took issue with the manner in which the war was fought). In addition, he became involved with CIA-backed organizations and was supportive of Zionism. These relationships and collaborations led to Rustin being criticized by other members of the Civil Rights Movement.
Bayard Rustin was arguably at risk of being forgotten due to his being relegated to working behind the scenes. But he became involved with gay rights activism in the 1980’s and pushed the NAACP to give attention to the AIDS crisis. In recent years, greater attention has been given to Bayard Rustin as a result of him posthumously receiving the Medal of Freedom and the release of the film Brother Outsider.
- “Bayard Rustin.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 1 July 2019, www.biography.com/activist/bayard-rustin.
- “Bayard Rustin.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 June 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayard_Rustin.
- “Bayard Rustin, the Gay Civil Rights Leader Who Organized the March on Washington.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 19 Sept. 2013, www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/100-amazing-facts/who-designed-the-march-on-washington.
- “Bayard Rustin: AFL-CIO.” AFL, http://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/bayard-rustin.
- Morgan, Thad. “Why MLK’s Right-Hand Man Was Nearly Written Out of History.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 1 June 2018, www.history.com/news/bayard-rustin-march-on-washington-openly-gay-mlk
- “Rustin, Bayard.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 5 Apr. 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/rustin-bayard.
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