RAZZ Pride Icons: Bayard Rustin

Martin Luther King Jr.’s right-hand man, a tireless Civil Rights activist, and an openly gay man – Bayard Rustin fought throughout his life against prejudice, yet he still faces a great deal of historical erasure. Born in 1912, Rustin learnt and adopted Quaker values of nonviolence from a very early age. In 1937, he went to college in New York and joined the Young Communist League because of their progressive views on racial issues but left at the start of the Second World War when it began to emphasise support for the Soviet Union. His focus then shifted to socialism and he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in 1941. In 1944, Rustin was arrested as a “conscientious objector” because he refused to register for the draft, being so against the war as he was, and faced a number of other arrests during his time with FOR.

FOR’s progressive politics had a limit which showed itself when Rustin was fired from his position there in 1953 for having sex with another man and was charged with “sex perversion.” However, with the organisation, Rustin met A. Philip Randolph, who persuading him to meet with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956. Before their meeting, Dr. King “hadn’t accepted pacifism as a way of life. And so when Rustin arrived in Montgomery, Dr. King’s home was full of guns” (Long), but it was Rustin and some other pacifists who helped mould him into the symbol of peace and nonviolence that he became. 

Rustin became part of Dr. King’s inner circle as the Civil Rights Movement grew but, despite initially overlooking Rustin’s sexuality, Dr. King was forced to confront it when the Democratic leadership sent black Congressman Adam Powell to threaten to accuse the two of an affair if they went ahead with plans to march at the Democratic National Convention. Rustin reluctantly resigned but was reintegrated by the time the March on Washington (1963) began to take shape. Detractors of the movement still opposed Rustin’s involvement and his past and personal life were constantly used to undermine the movement. However, Dr. King and all the leaders of the movement came out in support of him. The march went on to become more successful than could have been imagined, and was the site of Dr. King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech.

After Dr. King’s assassination, Rustin continued his Civil Rights activism and his openly gay lifestyle, viewing them as going hand-in-hand in the fight against prejudice. Sadly, it was never made easy for him to do so and to this day, as people did when he was alive, people insist on erasing at least one or all aspects of his identity, or using them to sideline him in the fights he was actually at the forefront of.

Read More – Why MLK’s Right-Hand Man, Bayard Rustin, Was Nearly Written Out of History https://www.history.com/news/bayard-rustin-march-on-washington-openly-gay-mlk (Quote Source)

Sophie Chapman

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