This spring around the country, LGBTQ communities are celebrating Bayard Rustin’s 100th birthday anniversary. But to date, he’s still largely an unknown because of the heterosexism that has canonized the history of last century’s black civil rights movement.
Bayard Rustin was born March 17, 1912 in the Quaker-settled area of West Chester Pennsylvania, one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. The handsome six-footer who possessed both athletic and academic prowess is most noted as the strategist and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King onto a world stage. Rustin also played a key role in helping King develop the strategy of nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which successfully dismantled the long-standing Jim Crow ordinance of segregated seating on public conveyances in Alabama.
One of my favorite quotes by Rustin is this: “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” For LGBTQ African Americans, Rustin is the only open gay hero we have, and for many of us his work and words give us courage to fight homophobia in ourselves and in our communities.
In a letter to a friend explaining his predilection toward gay sex, Rustin wrote: “I must pray, trust, experience, dream, hope, and all else possible until I know clearly in my own mind and spirit that I have failed to become heterosexual, if I must fail, not because of a faint heart, or for lack of confidence in my true self, or for pride, or for emotional instability, or for moral lethargy, or any other character fault, but rather, because I come to see after the most complete searching that the best for me lies elsewhere.”
During the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin was always the man behind the scene, and a large part of that had to do with the fact that he was gay. As Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers and friend of Rustin stated in a review on Jervis Anderson’s biography Bayard Rustin: The Troubles I’ve Seen, Rustin “…was the quintessential outsider—a black man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political, social dissident, and a homosexual.”
African American ministers involved in the Civil Right movement would have nothing to do with Rustin, and they rumored throughout the movement that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.
In a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in Open Hands, a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalled that difficult period quite vividly. Rustin stated, “Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality. Martin set up a committee to discover what he should do. They said that, despite the fact that I had contributed tremendously to the organization…they thought I should separate myself from Dr. King. This was the time when [Rev. Adam Clayton] Powell threatened to expose my so-called homosexual relationship with Dr. King.”
When Rustin pushed him on the issue to speak up on his behalf, King did not. In his book Lost Prophet: The Life and times of Bayard Rustin, John D’Emilo wrote the following on the matter:
“Rustin offered to resign in the hope that his would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay.
‘Basically King said I can’t take on two queers at one time,’ one of Rustin’s associated recollected later.”
When Rustin was asked about MLK’s views on gays in a March 1987 interview with Redvers Jeanmarie he stated, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness…”
As a March on Washington volunteer in 1963, Bayard Rustin was Eleanor Holmes Norton’s boss. The renowned Congresswoman of D.C. recalls the kerfuffle concerning Rustin’s sexuality.
“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” Norton stated to Steve Hendrix in a 2011 interview. “It flared up and then flared right back down,” Norton stated. “Thank God, because there was no substitute for Bayard.”
The association of Rustin to the March was inseparable to those who worked closely with him. “The 53-year-old known at the time as “Mr. March-on-Washington” was a lanky, cane-swinging, poetry-quoting black Quaker intellectual who wore his hair in a graying pompadour,” Hendrix wrote in Bayard Rustin: Organizer of the March on Washington.
“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” stated Norton. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”
Rustin was a complex man and often times seemingly a contrarian. To the surprise of many, Rustin was an opponent to “identity politics,” and most likely would not have been waving a rainbow flag or approve of queer studies departments at colleges and universities. To many conservative African Americans, Rustin wasn’t only “queer” in the literal sense, but was perceived also as one who didn’t have any of the approved and appropriate black sensibilities.
“Rustin’s steadfast opposition to identity politics also came under criticism by exponents of the developing Black Power movement. His critical stance toward affirmative action programs and black studies departments in American universities was not a popular viewpoint among many of his fellow Afro-Americans, and as at various other times of his life Rustin found himself to a certain extent isolated,” Buzz Haughton wrote in his article “Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Leader,” in the Fall 1999 issue of Quaker Studies.
As we comb through the annals of history, more of us are learning that Rustin was also one of the tallest trees in our forest. ■