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
The first time I heard of Bayard Rustin was the week after Martin Luther King Day. 2015. I was a young child during the civil rights movement. Whatever other faults my upbringing had, one of the good of was being taught a firm belief in civil rights and strong belief that racism needed to be addressed and hopefully abolished. The hows to do so were constant dinner table conversation.
In the early 1980s when I was first working for gay rights, I spent a great deal of time reading up on the civil rights movement of the ’60s to see what could be learned from it. And yet, immersed as I was in this, it has taken until now to hear of this important and influential man.
Strange, as I have had a deep interest in lbgtq history and a deep interest in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. I was looking for someone like him. Actively looking for him.
But it is not strange because Bayard Rustin’s place in history and in the Civil Rights movement and the strategies embraced by Dr. King have all but been erased due to homophobia. For Bayard Rustin was an out gay man. The bravery of this man, who understood deeply what racism was and who understood homophobia just as deeply, brings me to my knees in gratitude that he was alive and so very, very brave.
I have the odd understanding of the affects of homophobia from the place of being someone who could stay completely closeted. I can pass, whether I wish to or not. Queer people aren’t a shade of lavender, for many of us, there is no visual announcement made to the world that we’re here and queer. (Those who are not gender-conforming face terrible homophobia.) The same, of course, is usually not true for those who deal with racism. Bayard could have made his own life easier by staying closeted. It was what most people did in the early ’60s.
But Bayard Rustin was a deeply moral and convicted man, someone who understood even better than most how important civil rights were.
This is the man who brought nonviolence to the civil rights movement, was strongly influential to Dr. King, was part of the think tank of how to guide the movement, was one of the lead organizers of many of the most impactful things done during the civil rights movement. In fact, although there were people who were equal, it is hard to imagine someone with more influence over this branch of the movement, other than Dr. King himself.
Ever wondered what the connection was between Dr. King and Ghandi, who so obviously influenced what people did during the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement? The connection was Bayard Rustin, who had worked in India with Ghandi.
And his gayness was used in attempts to silence Dr. King. Listen to more of the story around that on NPR’s All Things Considered, here: Bayard Rustin.
In fact, most of the important events that happened during the civil rights movement had Bayard Rustin’s work in them, often as one of the architects or lead organizers. He was one of the organizers of the very first Freedom Rides in 1947. Making him one of the fathers of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. He also worked on gay rights in the 70s. Making him one of the grandfathers of the lgbtq rights movement as well.
Any progress made towards civil rights in the last 70 years owes a great deal to Bayard Rustin.
All in all, a fascinating man and one who does deserve much better from history than he has gotten. He devoted his life to civil rights. A true hero of our time.
A documentary was made about him in 2003, Brother Outsider. On November 20, 2013, President Obama awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be awarded to a civilian, on Bayard Rustin. His surviving partner, Walter Naegle, accepted the award.
Learn more about him here.