African American activist Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) is best remembered for his work which advocated for civil rights, socialism, non-violence and gay rights, as well as being a key advisor to famed civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. In particular, he was central to the organisation of the March on Washington in 1963, which advocated for an end to racial discrimination in employment.
Born to a large, politically-minded family, Rustin campaigned for civil rights from an early age, such as protesting against racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws as a teenager. However, Rustin’s personal life bled into and often overshadowed his activism, since his homosexuality meant that his character was frustratingly referred to as ‘perverted’ or ‘immoral’ by critics and fellow activists alike.
It was only in the years after his death that the full impact of his work and activism has been recognised: amongst other achievements, former US President Barack Obama posthumously honoured Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
So who was Bayard Rustin?
1. He campaigned against Jim Crow laws as a youth
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was raised by his maternal grandparents as one of twelve children. He believed his grandparents to be his parents; however, his real mother was actually his supposed sister, Florence Rustin.
Rustin’s grandmother was a Quaker and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), meaning that members W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were frequent guests in the Rustin household. As a result of these influences, Rustin campaigned against racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws as a youth.
2. He was expelled from university
In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce College, where he was active in a number of organisations. He was expelled in 1936 after organising a strike. He later attended the Cheyney State Teachers College, but didn’t graduate with a degree. After completing an activist training program held by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), he then moved to Harlem in 1937 to study at the City College of New York. In all, he had obtained five years of university schooling without obtaining a formal degree.
3. He advocated for nonviolent protest
In 1941, Rustin was hired as a race relations secretary at the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the ‘largest, oldest interfaith peace and justice organisation in the United States.’ The group campaigned for both domestic and international issues, and emphasised nonviolent methods of protest and the rights of conscience. He also organised the New York branch of another reformist group, the Congress on Racial Equality, in 1941.
4. He was an accomplished singer
Rustin was a talented tenor vocalist, which helped earn him admission to both Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College. In Harlem, he earned a living as a nightclub and stage singer, and in 1939 was cast in a Broadway musical. He also later joined gospel and vocal harmony group ‘Josh White and the Carolinians’, with whom he made several recordings. He also became a regular performer at the Café Society in Greenwich.
5. He was the main organiser of the March on Washington
In 1941, Rustin was one of the main organisers of the March on Washington Movement, which advocated for an end to racial discrimination in employment. As well as organising labour union president and socialist A. Philip Randolph, the march leader, he influenced young activists to take part, drilled off-duty police officers as marshals, instructed bus captains to redirect traffic and scheduled the podium speakers. On 6 September 1963, a photograph of Rustin and Randolph appeared on the cover of Life magazine, which identified them as the ‘leaders’ of the march.
6. He was a close advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the mid-1950s, Rustin became a close advisor to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. He helped to organise the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and promoted the idea of nonviolent resistance and protest, which he had observed as an effective method after working with Gandhi’s movement in India. He also organised Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals.
7. He was imprisoned for being gay
In 1953, Rustin was arrested in California after being discovered having sex with a man. He served 50 days in jail and was registered as a sex offender. Rustin’s sexuality – or at least, the public criminal charge – was criticised by both Rustin’s opponents and some of his fellow pacifists and civil rights leaders. As a result, he was attacked as a ‘pervert’ throughout the rest of most of his career, and took on less of a public, visible role within the civil rights movement, acting instead as an advisor. In 2020, Rustin was pardoned for his 1953 conviction.
8. He was involved with the Socialist movement
In 1972, Rustin became an honorary chairperson of the Sociality Party of America, before it changed its name to Social Democrats, USA. After the name change, Rustin served as national co-chairman.
9. He became a public advocate for queer and humanitarian causes
Rustin didn’t engage in any gay rights activism until the 1980s, after being urged to by his partner Walter Naegle. He became a public advocate for gay and lesbian causes. In addition, he served on many humanitarian missions such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. Indeed, he was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti when he died in 1987.
10. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
In 2012, Rustin was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor display which celebrates LGBTQ+ history and people. On 20 November 2013, former US President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2021, Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions, announced the production of Rustin, a biopic about Rustin’s life.