Bayard Rustin at news briefing on the March on Washington, Aug. 27, 1963 (Wikipedia)
When a new memorial is dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, let us also remember Bayard Rustin, the black gay man who organized the march.
|MLK Jr Memorial|
A close advisor to King, Rustin was the chief organizer of the March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin has been called “an invisible LGBT hero.” His name is almost unknown, even though he was a major leader in the movements for civil rights and non-violence. He was openly gay, so stayed behind the scenes. He died 24 years ago today at age 75.
Rustin (Mar.17, 1912 - Aug. 24, 1987) rarely served as a public spokesperson for civil rights because he was openly gay in an era when homosexuality was criminalized and stigmatized. His sexuality was criticized by both segregationists and some fellow pacifists and civil-rights workers. In the 1970s he began to advocate publicly for lesbian and gay causes.
From 1955-68 Rustin was a leading strategist for the African American civil rights movement. He is credited with introducing Gandhi-style non-violence to the civil rights movement. His decades of achievements include helping launch the first Freedom Rides in 1947, when civil disobedience was used against racial segregation on buses. He helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and much more.
Rustin’s sexual orientation became publicly known in 1953, when he was arrested for homosexual activity in Pasadena, California. He pleaded guilty and served 60 days in jail. A member of the Quaker faith with its pacifist tradition, he had been jailed before for refusing to participate in World War II.
He clearly saw the connections between the movements for racial justice, women’s equality and LGBT rights. He made it vividly clear in a controversial speech to the Philadelphia chapter of Black and White Men Together on March 1, 1986. The speech, titled “The New ‘Niggers’ are Gays,” is one of several pieces about LGBT rights in his book “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writing of Bayard Rustin.” Rustin 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 “niggers” 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.”
The full synthesis of Rustin’s black and gay identities -- the “two crosses” of his book title -- was the culmination of a life well lived. He died less than a year later of a ruptured pancreas on Aug. 24, 1987 -- 24 years ago today. Late August was also significant in Rustin’s life because the March on Washington was held on Aug. 28, 1963.
The new King memorial includes 24 niches honoring others who gave their lives in various ways to the civil rights movement. I wasn’t able to find out if Rustin will be officially honored there. Some niches have been left open and incomplete, so that more individuals can be added in the future.
Rustin deserves a place in the King memorial… and in the LGBT saints series here at the Jesus in Love Blog.
For more info, see:
Rustin’s biography at Wikipedia
Martin Luther King memorial at Wikipedia
Rustin.org (includes reflection by Rustin’s lover, Walter Naegle)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.