When you think of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s that pushed the undeniable equivalence of the Negro in America, you may think instantly of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges. However, there were countless other leaders working tirelessly in the background to shape the ideologies involved, the strategies, and the gruesome task of organizing large scale events in days before social media and the internet (how did they ever do it?!?!)
Bayard Rustin is an excellent example of these unsung heroes who don’t get the recognition they deserve. Rustin’s life is reminiscent of the rhetoric we hear of people with ‘overlapping identities’ that draw them deeper and deeper into the trenches of discrimination and hate.
As a gay black man during his era, there was no way he could’ve been the face or voice for a movement drenched in a harsh and tumultuous political climate. This is still a relevant issue today when you look at the shaming that comes along with having to ‘come out of the closet’ and the risks involved with doing so.
Bayard Rustin organized The March on Washington in 1963—one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. Bayard is also responsible for bringing Ghandi’s protest techniques to the Civil Rights movement, and was extremely influential in the shaping of MLK as an international symbol of peace and nonviolence. When Rustin traveled to Montgomery in February 1956 to aid in the bus boycott, MLK wasn’t fully embracing his nonviolent legacy as of yet. Martin was known to have guns in the home and armed guards at his front door. It was Rustin alone who convinced the boycott leaders to embrace nonviolence.
Although his resume would gain him a fabulous position at a non-profit or a marketing firm today, the time he lived wasn’t so kind. His reality of being an openly gay man in a homophobic society left him silenced, threatened, arrested, abused, and fired from several positions where he was a fearless and tireless leader.
Rustin’s issues stemmed from arrests surrounding his engagement in public sex with white prostitutes. Some leaders criticized Rustin’s sexuality as a drag on his overall effectiveness in helping the cause, especially when coupled with the public criminal charge. It wasn’t uncommon to hear opposing politicians refer to him as a “pervert” and “immoral influence”.
Later, in the 1980s, Rustin was urged to get into gay rights by his partner, Walter Naegle. Bayard was relentless once he got deep into the gay movement for civil liberties, though he didn’t man the front lines as he did for black people decades before. In 1986 he delivered a thought provoking speech entitled “The New N*****s are Gays” on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill where he states:
“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new n*****s are gays…. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change…. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”
Though society set out to shame homosexuals, Rustin never let it deter his spirit or become detrimental to his self esteem. Davis Platt, a partner of Bayard’s from the 1940s said he never sensed a feeling of shame or guilt from Rustin over his sexuality. He also noted how extremely rare that was for a gay man during that time. Marriage equality, or the lack thereof, presented many worries for the aging Bayard Rustin. He was madly in love with his partner and wanted to protect their union. In 1982, Rustin adopted Naegle in order to have legal reverence of their union. The two had to go through a process as though Rustin was adopting a child… Their story definitely proves that no matter what sets out to deter you, love can find a way to thrive.
Bayard Rustin died on August 24, 1987. President Ronald Reagan issued a statement of praise for his life’s work as a civil rights leader and fighting for human rights throughout the world. In 2012 he was inducted into the Legacy Walk (an outdoor display that uplifts LGBT people) as well as honoree membership into Delta Phi Upsilon (a fraternity for gay, bisexual, and progressive men.) In 2013, President Barack Obama bestowed a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom which was accepted by his partner, Walter Naegle. The citation in the press release reads:
“Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”
-President Barack Obama
Bayard Rustin’s life and legacy is a true testament that great things can come from working to make progressive moves selflessly and with a goal in mind. The atrocities that stem from hate and discrimination do not stand to be conducive with the things that make us our best. It is vital that as gay men and women, we focus on the objectives that move us forward as one and realize that the inter-connectors of our lives and identities are the crossroads of humanity.
About The Author: Kris Welcome
Kris Welcome is a writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Currently, he serves as a copywriter where he manages several blogs, including Pics Of Men, Gay Hub, and Big Cam Tube. Kris is from Texas and has lived in California since 2014. Mr. Welcome has been a writer as long as he can remember and has worked to derive a writing style that’s versatile and rounded, but still reflective of one voice.
Kris has a BA in Communication with minor concentration in journalism from Texas Southern University and a MFA in Producing for TV/Film from New York Film Academy-Burbank. He has written for The Voice of Southwest Louisiana, BallerAlert, and Curb Networks, among others. Soul food enthusiast. Southern gentleman. Beach bum. Pisces. Guy with the Afro.