August 24, 1987:
On this day, the world lost a great advocate of civil and gay rights in Bayard Rustin.
Bayard Rustin was one of the most important, and yet least known, Civil Rights advocates in the twentieth century. He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 17, 1912 and raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandmother, Julia, was both a Quaker and an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Quakerism, and NAACP leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, who were frequent visitors, proved influential in Rustin’s life.
A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.
Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. Rustin’s activism focused on peace, racial equality, economic justice and human rights.
In 1956, Rustin went to Montgomery, Alabama and advised Martin Luther King, Jr. on nonviolent strategies of resistance during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King and Rustin helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). However, in 1960 New York Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. forced him to resign from SCLC due to concerns shared by many black leaders about Rustin’s homosexuality and communist past.
Due to the combination of the homophobia of these leaders and their fear he might compromise the movement, Rustin would not receive public recognition for his role in the movement. Nevertheless, Rustin continued to work in the Civil Rights Movement, organizing the seminal 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with A. Philip Randolph.
Today, the United States is still struggling with many of the issues Bayard Rustin sought to change during his long, illustrious career. His focus on civil and economic rights and his belief in peace, human rights and the dignity of all people remain as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and 60s.
Rustin’s story is particularly important for lesbian and gay Americans, highlighting the major contributions of a gay man to ending official segregation in America. Rustin stands at the confluence of the great struggles for civil, legal and human rights by African-Americans and lesbian and gay Americans. In a nation still torn by racial hatred and violence, bigotry against homosexuals, and extraordinary divides between rich and poor, his eloquent voice is needed today.
“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.”–Bayard Rustin