100 Heroes: Bayard Rustin

The gay man who helped Martin Luther King Jr. change the world

100 Heroes: Bayard Rustin

Let’s take a look at the life and legacy of Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin is important because of the role he played in the Civil Rights movement in the US.

Rustin started working with Martin Luther King Junior in 1956, which is when the bus boycotts really kicked off following the arrest of Rosa Parks. But Rustin wasn’t new to civil rights activism – he’d been advocating for equality since the 1930s.

While Rustin was a key ally of Dr King, and was widely respected, one of the challenges he had to navigate was that it was widely known that he was gay.

Rustin had been arrested in 1953 – the police had found him in a car having sex with another man. Same-sex sexual activity was illegal at that time – he was convicted and served 60 days in jail.

Rustin was forced to take a back seat in Civil Rights organisations because of concerns that his sexuality would be a distraction from the campaign for equality.

Although he was instrumental in the Civil Rights movement, he was airbrushed from history. It’s only recently that he’s been widely celebrated.

Rustin died in 1987. In 2013, President Obama awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Who was Bayard Rustin?

The activism

Born in 1912, Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandmother, Julia Rustin, was an active member of the NAACP. As a child, Rustin was involved in campaigns against the Jim Crow racial segregation laws.

In 1937, Rustin moved to Harlem, where he was studying at City College of New York. During this period he became involved in efforts to defend and free the Scottsboro Boys  –  nine young black men in Alabama who were accused of raping two white women.

Rustin became increasingly involved in campaigns focused on labour reform and segregation.

In 1942, as part of a campaign to desegregate interstate bus travel, Rustin boarded a bus in Louisville, bound for Nashville, and sat in the second row. Rustin refused to move to the back of the bus, as required by the laws of segregation. The bus was stopped by police and Rustin was arrested. Rustin was beaten by police but was released without any charges being laid.

Rustin became an early member of the newly formed Congress of Racial Equality  -  a pacifist organisation. In 1944, Rustin was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act  -  he refused to be conscripted into military service due to his pacifist beliefs. Rustin was imprisoned until 1946 in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. During his imprisonment, Rustin organised protests against the segregated dining facilities.

In 1947, Rustin and George Houser of the Congress of Racial Equality organised the first of the Freedom Rides to test the 1946 ruling of the US Supreme Court that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel as unconstitutional. During the journey, Rustin was arrested in North Carolina for violating racial segregation laws. He served 22 days on a chain gang as punishment.

Rustin subsequently travelled to India to study the Ghandian movement’s techniques of non-violent civil resistance. He also met with leaders of independence movements in Ghana and Nigeria.

The arrest

Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California, in 1953 for sexual activity with another man in a parked car. Originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of “sex perversion” as sodomy was officially referred to at that time in California.

Rustin served 60 days in jail for that conviction.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
In 1956, Rustin began working with Martin Luther King Jr on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had been triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks. Rustin advised King on non-violent civil resistance.

Rustin and King worked together to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  –  the SCLC. King was appointed president, and their goal was to form an organisation to coordinate and support non-violent direct action as a method of desegregating bus systems across the southern states of the US.

Rustin resigned from the SCLC in 1960, due to concerns raised about his conviction for homosexuality.

Rustin continued to be active in high profile civil rights campaigns  -  organising the March on Washington in 1963, and also the New York City School Boycott in 1964.

Rustin remained active in a wide range of political campaigns throughout his life.

The legacy

Rustin died in 1987, aged 75.

On 8 August, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award in the United States. The citation in the press release stated:

“Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”

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