Pride Week: Bayard Rustin – The Gay Man Behind the March on Washington
As part of Pride Week Sam Wilson explores the history and importance of Martin Luther King’s queer right hand man.
As part of Liverpool Pride this year, the International Slavery Museum is running an event called Civil Rights and Freedom Fights.
It is one of the many free events taking place over the weekend, and the purpose is to explore the ways in which the LGBT rights and civil rights movements have intersected over time, focussing on influential figures such as Marsha P. Johnson and Audre Lorde.
But, with the 55th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington next month, there is one figure it seems especially pertinent to celebrate; Bayard Rustin.
Born in rural Pennsylvania in March 1912, Rustin was raised by his grandparents. His grandmother was a Quaker and believed in non-violence, and was also an active member of the NAACP. As a result, he grew up surrounded by the organisation’s leaders, who no doubt influenced his later activism; from a young age, Rustin was campaigning against the Jim Crow laws in the southern states. As one of his school friends claimed; “Some of us were ready to give up the fight and accept the status quo, but he never would. He had a strong inner spirit.”
Rustin came out to his grandmother at a very young age, and from all accounts it seems as if she acted indifferently to the news – which seems as reasonable in the 1920s, a world in which homosexuality was still prohibited under sodomy laws. It was while studying at the City College of New York where he truly found his voice. Literally; he took up singing and even found himself appearing with Paul Robeson in a revival of John Henry on Broadway.
His singing career actually lasted a fair amount of time, and he even released an album of spirituals in the early 1950’s.
He also found his political voice, joining the Young Communist League, though he switched to the Socialist Party by 1941, when he first began toying with the idea of a Civil Rights march on Washington.
Over 20 years before the era-defining event in 1963, Rustin attempted the same feat with fellow Civil Rights leader Phillip Randolph. This, according to Randolph, was a “Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July, 1, 1941“.
It was estimated that over 100,000 people would appear. President Roosevelt was beside himself, and personally tried to persuade Randolph and Rustin to call off the protest, to no avail. The President responded by passing an Executive Order, the Fair Employment Act, which made it illegal to “discriminate against persons of any race, colour, creed, or nationality in matters of employment.”
Rustin had effectively made the change he wished to make without having to stage the march itself, and he was fast becoming an important figure in the Civil Rights movement. But despite his efforts, events over the next few years would force him into the background.
Unsurprisingly, considering his Quaker roots, Rustin abhorred violence. So when America joined World War II, he refused to fight and imprisoned for the duration of the war. Not that this stopped his activism. On the contrary, he organised protests against segregated seating in the prison’s dining hall, explaining; “Both morally and practically, segregation is to me a basic injustice. Since I believe it to be so, I must attempt to remove it. There are three ways in which one can deal with an injustice. (a) One can accept it without protest. (b) On can seek to avoid it. (c) One can resist the injustice non-violently. To accept it is to perpetuate it.”
This wouldn’t be his only arrest, and he would return to prison for protests and breaking Jim Crow laws several times over the next few years. He was strong minded, and refused to accept the reality of early 40s America.
There is a slight misconception about Rustin; that he was an out and proud gay man. But the reality isn’t quite as simple. In his own words, he maintained “I did not come out of the closet voluntarily—circumstances forced me out”.
Those “circumstances” date back to an incident in 1953.
Although Rustin was privately open about his sexuality, despite homosexual acts remaining illegal, it was not initially public knowledge during his early activism career. It was, however, known by some of those closest to him that he would hire male prostitutes, for example.
But in 1953, in his early 40s, he was arrested in California for sexual activity with another man in a parked car. Although charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he accepted the lesser charge of “sex perversion” and served a prison sentence of just under two months.
Despite several arrests for his activism and “draft dodging”, this arrest led to dismissal from his job at the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
In retrospect, when you consider that in 1950’s America; segregation was still in effect, homosexuality was outlawed and the anti-communist “Red Scare” took hold of the country. Bayard Rustin as a gay, black former communist was arguably a man with as much widespread prejudice against him as anyone could have faced at that time. But his commitment and abilities were too vital for the movement to completely disown him.
It was around this time that Martin Luther King Jr came into his life.
Everyone knows the story and its importance in spearheading not only the Civil Rights movement, but also the visibility of Martin Luther King. It was December 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Dr. King was a pastor at the local Baptist Church and in response to Parks’ arrest, organised a protest whereby black passengers would refuse to use public transport until there was complete integration.
Rustin was asked to go to Alabama to assist with King’s boycott. The purpose of his role was to advise King on “Gandhian tactics” – a non-violent approach, as exhibited by Mahatma Gandhi in India. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King is a leader celebrated for his approach, but he arguably wouldn’t have got there if it wasn’t for Rustin, who later explained; “I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King‘s view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott began. In other words, Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns.”
Rustin’s “Gandhian tactics” proved successful. The boycott lasted a full year, but in December 1956 integration on public transport was passed into law in Montgomery, Alabama, as Rustin gradually became King’s closest advisor. The two became so close that they formed a new organisation together; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Despite their close relationship, King still seemed to somewhat equate homosexuality with mental illness. A transcript released by Stanford University showed King’s response to a student questioning his sexuality in 1958. He responded by saying; “The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired. Your reasons for adopting this habit have now been consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed… I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit.”
That being said, his response doesn’t come across as especially homophobic given the time period. He doesn’t respond with horror, disgust or paranoia, which was the norm for the time. It seems more akin to a lack of understanding, which is to be expected in 1950s America. Remember, this is still over a decade before Stonewall.
It is also worth pointing out that Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King later became an advocate for LGBT rights. Unfortunately for Rustin, though, not everybody in the movement displayed the same level of open mindedness, and he was regularly targeted with abuse from both his enemies and those within the movement. He was regularly labelled a “pervert“, and chastised for his supposed “immoral influence“.
One Baptist pastor who sat both on SCLC’s board and in the US House of Representatives managed to remove Rustin from the organisation he created by threatening to discuss his “sex perversion” charge in Congress. Even some of his supporters were of the opinion that his homosexuality and communist past would undermine their movement.
But Rustin and Phillip Randolph had never fully abandoned their idea for a march on Washington that they concocted back in 1941. 1963 seemed like a perfect time to finally do it. Not only had the Civil Rights movement developed real momentum and begun making real progress, but it coincided with the centenary of the Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Predictably, Rustin’s appointment as the march’s chief organiser was controversial, but Randolph and Dr. King insisted that he was the best man for the job. The feeling among some within the ranks was that Rustin would be an easy target for a smear campaign, which proved a little prophetic. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had been keeping a file on Rustin for many years. An undercover agent managed to take a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was having a bath, which was then used to circulate false rumours about the two having an affair (which seems especially ironic given the persistent rumours surrounding Hoover’s own sexuality).
As this rumour circulated, politicians queued up to condemn Rustin. South Carolina Senator Storm Thurmond seemed to lead the campaign, and made several speeches referring to him as “a communist, draft dodger and homosexual”. But, make no mistake, it was Bayard Rustin who made that event happen. Everything from the sound system, to the traffic co-ordination, to crowd safety, to making sure there were enough toilets for attendees, to simple PR. Every small detail was overseen by him. And you could argue that it was his vision. His original idea from two decades previously finally coming to fruition; a quarter of million people, a sea of black faces.
Rustin did speak at the event, directly following Dr. King’s “I have a dream…” speech. He read out the list of demands that had been agreed upon.
It was undoubtedly one of the most radical moments of the entire event. Where Dr. King was hopeful, Rustin is uncompromising. He is calm and collected, but pointed and, well, demanding.
If King‘s speech was the heart of the march, Rustin‘s was the brains. Despite this, even after the fact, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins didn’t want Rustin to receive credit for his work.
It is no surprise, then, that Rustin‘s speech is one of the least remembered moments of the day, even if it was arguably the most vital. Nevertheless, he did appear on the cover of Life magazine, where he was identified as one of the march’s leaders.
Of course, the march – and Dr. King himself – have rightly gone down in history. August 28th 1963 is remembered for one reason only, and the effects were as close to immediate as they could have been. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed less than a year later, and the Voting Rights Act followed a year later.
But what of Bayard Rustin?
He continued to fight for various causes for the rest of his life, but curiously never considered himself an LGBT activist. He declined to contribute to the book In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, explaining “I was not involved in the struggle for gay rights as a youth… While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights.”
It wasn’t until the end of his life when he began to take an active role in LGBT activism, at the behest of his partner, Walter Neagle. “I think that if I hadn’t been in the office at that time, when these invitations came in, he probably wouldn’t have done them,” Negale has since claimed.
And yet former lovers all say that Rustin never felt ashamed of his sexuality, a rarity for a time in which people were actively shamed for it.
When he did throw himself into LGBT activism, he drew parallels with the Civil Rights struggle. When testifying for New York’s 1986 Gay Rights Bill, he said; “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.”
By the end of his life, he had become more militant about the subject. Speaking shortly before his death, he encouraged LGBT youth to “recognise that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalisation of this society.”
He died in August 1987 from a perforated appendix. He was 75 years old.
Rustin may have felt like he wasn’t a true gay activist, but his sexuality is an important part of his story and his identity.
Consider his history. This is a man with a stage background. This is a man who continuously fought for the rights of his people, and was routinely punished for it. This is a man who organised the most iconic protest in history. This is the man who convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to be totally non-violent. Had he not been a gay man, he would likely have been one of the faces of the movement.
But this aspect of his identity forced him to the back. Therefore, his name is rarely mentioned at the same time as King’s or Malcolm X’s. He was actively written out of too many history books directly because of homophobia. Yet who could deny that history would have unfolded very differently without him?
Over time, Rustin began receiving more recognition, culminating in 2013 when President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Reading his story in 2018 raises the conundrum that queer people of colour are still fighting for ample representation. So perhaps it is time we celebrate Bayard Rustin and his achievements equally as a proud black man, and a proud gay man. It is long overdue.
Civil Rights and Freedom Fights takes place at the International Slavery Museum as part of Liverpool Pride on Sunday 29th July 2018 at 10.30am. Entrance is free.