Overshadowed in His Time, Bayard Rustin's Leadership Speaks to Today's Fights for JusticeRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, LGBTQ history, Bayard Rustin
Jerald Podair is Professor of History and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University. He is the author of Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
Bayard Rustin is the most important African American civil rights leader you have never heard of. Yet his legacy in overcoming racism, eradicating poverty and ending violence is unmatched by any other leader, with the exception of Martin Luther King Jr, a man whose legacy Rustin helped create. That Rustin spent much of his life in the shadows testifies to the enduring power of perhaps the only prejudice shared equally by white and Black Americans: homophobia.
Rustin’s homosexuality exacted a high price, both professionally and personally. He was America’s first intersectional radical. He was at once a civil rights crusader, a pacifist, a socialist, a trade unionist and, near the end of his life in the 1980s, a gay rights activist. He was drawn to ‘people in trouble’ – a phrase he used often – whoever and wherever they might be.
Born to a teenage single mother in 1912 in segregated West Chester, Pennsylvania, and raised largely by his Quaker grandmother, Rustin moved to New York in the late 1930s. After a brief flirtation with communism, he became a democratic socialist. Socialism formed the core of his radical agenda, uniting the poor and working classes of all races around a programme of economic and social equality, achieved through nonviolent direct action. Rustin seemed to be everywhere in radical circles during the 1940s and 1950s, but never quite in the leadership position that his talents merited. ‘Bayard’s problem’ was never far from his colleagues’ minds.
In January 1953, while on a speaking trip for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the peace group for which Rustin had worked as an organiser for over a decade, he was arrested while having sex with two men in a parked car on a side street in Pasadena, California. The FOR’s leader A.J. Muste, a labour radical, a militant socialist and an uncompromising civil rights advocate, who considered Rustin to be his best organiser and regarded him as a surrogate son, nonetheless fired him immediately.
Seven years later, as Rustin served as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) New York office and special assistant to King, a jealous New York rival, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr, threatened to spread a rumour that King and Rustin were lovers. King and the SCLC African American ministers who made up the group’s constituency, unswerving in their commitment to the cause of racial equality, were much less forthcoming regarding homosexuality, which most of them regarded as a Biblical sin. Rustin was forced to resign from the SCLC and he and King ceased public contact.
Everything changed, however, in 1963, as King planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest and most important event in the Civil Rights Movement up to that time. It would bring hundreds of thousands to the Mall and disorganisation, miscalculation, or – even worse – violence, could delegitimise the Movement as a whole in the eyes of a still-sceptical Northern white public. King knew only Rustin had the organisational skills to ensure that the March would come off as planned. Over the objections of many of the NAACP’s leaders, notably its executive secretary Roy Wilkins, King succeeded in having Rustin appointed as the March’s assistant director and de facto chief.
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