Black History Month 101: Bayard Rustin, A Forgotten Gay Civil Rights Leader


This month, schoolchildren around the nation will celebrate Black History Month along with lots of civic organizations and Americans in general, but few will hear the name of one of the most influential civil rights leaders of the 20th century, Bayard Rustin. Some may ask, if he was so influential, why is he not discussed, and the answer to this question is simple: He was openly gay. Due to his sexuality, Bayard Rustin has been largely written out of Black History or simply ignored.

One of the most influential moments in Black history is most certainly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, but few Americans know that the March on Washington was organized by Bayard Rustin. It was Rustin who in the summer of 1963 coordinated activities to attain the license for the Lincoln Memorial, mobilized buses from various cities around the United States, and collaborated with African-American civic organizations to present a united effort.

Many Americans view Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of the non-violent protests leading to significant changes in rights for African-American citizens, but few know that Bayard Rustin practiced non-violent protesting prior to Dr. King and introduced him to the ideals of non-violent protest, which Dr. King eventually studied and adopted. In the mid-1940’s, Bayard Rustin was arrested for refusing to participate in the draft, along with other pacifists, and integrated the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary dining hall from within.

Immediately after being released from prison, Rustin organized one of the first “freedom rides,” called the Journey of Reconciliation through the South to test a recent Supreme Court decision barring discrimination in interstate bus travel. Rustin and his colleagues were opposed by the NAACP and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall for their direct action.

After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery Bus, spawning the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was Bayard Rustin who became Dr. King’s primary adviser and assisted him in organizing the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which led the boycott and similar protests throughout the southern United States.

Eventually, influential members of the Civil Rights Movement would ask for Dr. King to dismiss Bayard Rustin from being involved with the movement due to his sexuality, to which Dr. King refused to bend. Nevertheless, believing the good of the movement was much larger than himself, Bayard Rustin eventually separated himself from the movement.

Rustin died on August 24, 1987 in New York City. Without Rustin, Dr. King may have never adopted a non-violent protest strategy, the Montgomery Bus Boycott may have been a violent activity, the SCLC may have never formed, the March on Washington may have never occurred, and Black History Month may have much less to celebrate. If history is to accurately portray and celebrate how African-Americans went from then to now, it would be appropriate to have a statute of Bayard Rustin standing next to Dr. King on the National Mall whispering into his ear.

For more information on Bayard Rustin, see John D'Emilio's The Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons