Bayard Rustin was a black gay man and chief organizer of the influential 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. A follower of the Quaker faith with its pacifist tradition, he brought Gandhi-style non-violent protest techniques to the movement for racial equality and become a close advisor to Martin Luther King. Today is the anniversary of his death on Aug. 24, 1987 at age 75.
Rustin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in a White House ceremony in 2013. “For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King's side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin's memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love,” President Obama said when he presented the medal for Rustin.
Rustin (Mar.17, 1912 - Aug. 24, 1987) rarely served as a public spokesperson for civil rights because he was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was criminalized and stigmatized. His sexuality was criticized by both segregationists and some fellow workers in the peace and civil-rights movements. 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. His decades of achievements include helping launch the first Freedom Rides in 1947, when civil disobedience was used to fight 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 to a charge of consensual “sex perversion” (sodomy) and served 60 days in jail. It was not his first stint in jail. He had been arrested before for his pacifist refusal to participate in World War II and he served on a chain gang for breaking Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation on public transportation.
Mug shot of Bayard Rustin (Wikimedia Commons) taken for failure to report for his Selective Service physical exam
Rustin saw the connections between 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 ‘N*s’ are Gays,” is one of several pieces about LGBT rights in his book Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings 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 “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.”
The following year Rustin died of a ruptured pancreas on Aug. 24, 1987. Late August is also significant for him because the March on Washington held on Aug. 28, 1963. Organized by Rustin, the March was where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. An estimated 250,000 people attended, making it the largest demonstration held in the U.S. capital until that time. The full synthesis of Rustin’s black and gay identities -- the “two crosses” of his book title -- came as the culmination of a life well lived.
The play “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” starring and written by Michael Benjamin Washington, premiered in fall 2015. It was a co-production of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse in California. Set in summer 1963, it shows how his gay orientation was considered a public relations problem when Rustin is planning the march. Other characters include King and Rustin’s ex-lover Davis Platt. Washington discusses Rustin as a lost prophet and American hero in a YouTube video preview of the play.
A campaign is underway to convince the U.S. Postal Servie to honor Rustin with a postage stamp.
Walter Naegle was Rustin’s life partner from 1977 until his death a decade later. As executor and archivist for the Bayard Rustin estate, Naegle continues to promote Rustin’s legacy by organizing programs and providing materials for books and exhibits on Rustin’s amazing life.
Rustin’s biography is told in the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin and books such as Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by historian John D’Emilio. The book "I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters", edited by Michael Long was a 2013 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. A chapter on Bayard Rustin by Patricia Nell Warren is included in the 2015 book “The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism.”
Rustin appears against a quilted background reminiscent of a rainbow flag in a tapestry portrait by queer Chicana autistic artist Sabrina Zarco. “The implied rainbow and words in the clouds in this work speak to the many causes for which he worked and his love of all things hand made by marginalized artists,” Zarco said in her artist’s statement. “His necktie with musical notes is a nod to his love of music and time as a musician. He wears the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom on his chest.” The original artwork was unveiled at a National Black Justice Coalition event after Naegle accepted Bayard's medal. It is now in the private collection of black LGBT activist Mandy Carter, cofounder of the coalition. The image is available for purchase at the artist’s online store.
In the another image, Rustin and Naegle hold hands as an interracial gay couple on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was created by artist Ryan Grant Long for his “Fairy Tales” series of gay historical figures. For more on Long, see my previous post Artist paints history’s gay couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long.
“Bayard Rustin - Pride” by Sean J. Randall
A different kind of rainbow portrait created by Portland artist Sean J. Randall. He adds rainbow colors to Rustin’s mug shot to emphasize his gay pride.
Walter Naegle, Activist Bayard Rustin’s Partner, On Rustin’s Enduring Legacy (Lambda Literary)
For Bayard Rustin’s partner, an effort to preserve legacy (Washington Post)
Bayard Rustin: One of the Tallest Trees in Our Forest by Irene Monroe (Huffington Post)
Top image credts:
Detail from “Bayard Rustin” art quilt by Sabrina Zarco
“Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle” by Ryan Grant Long
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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