Freedom, Civil Rights, Equality- The Story of Bayard Rustin

Martin Luther King Jr and Bayard Rustin-1956 (Credit: Associated Press)

Martin Luther King Jr and Bayard Rustin-1956 (Credit: Associated Press)

Bayard Rustin was born on March 17th 1912 Westchester Pennsylvania. He attended Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College and City College of New York; he never received a B.A. Mr. Rustin is cited for his involvement in The Civil Rights Movement, in which he was a leading activist from 1947-1955, and for his stances on pacifism and gay rights. He was influenced by civil rights activists W.E.B Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph among others.  He was also heavily influenced by the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi. He even travelled to India in 1948 to learn non violent civil resistance techniques from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. He influenced the lives and works of people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and James L Farmer Jr.

Mr. Rustin held many positions throughout his lifetime. He was the founder of the Youth Communist League, the President of the Sleep Car Porters and the Race Relations secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).  He was the field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and helped organize the Journey of Reconciliation known as the “Freedom Ride”. He assisted in lobbying President Truman to eliminate segregation in the military and he aided Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was the chief organizer and deputy director of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom where Dr. King gave his legendary “I have a dream” speech. He had many other affiliations.

As an openly gay man, he was arrested in Pasadena California in 1953 for homosexual activity. The charge was “sex perversion” i.e consensual sodomy; or so it was called at the time. He served a total of 60 days in prison. He was subsequently fired from the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). One can only imagine the strength and determination it took to live openly as a gay man in those times yet wonder how despite his sexuality, he was able to achieve such greatness amongst the black community. Not spared from criticism due to his sexuality he was slandered by Senator Storm Thurmond on the basis of his homosexuality among other things. The Senator even published a photo of him talking to Dr. King as King showered, in an attempt to portray a same-sex relationship between the two. A relationship that both men denied.

bayard-rustinAn inspiration to many, he was a strong voice for the gay rights movement. He served as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House; an NGO that advocates democracy, political freedom and human rights. He testified on New York’s Gay Rights Bill and in 1986 he gave the infamous speech “The New Niggers Are Gays”. A speech that is still relevant today. It goes:

“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

Bayard Rustin died on August 24th 1987 of a perforated appendix. He is survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years. Though his contributions are often overlooked by the Black community on the basis of his sexuality, he remains an iconic figure in history. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom– America’s highest civilian honour on November 20th 2013 by Barack Obama.

For more information on Bayard Rustin, visit rustin.org

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