Bayard Rustin: My Hero

20 January 2014

Remembering Bayard Rustin, Dr King’s openly gay right hand man in the fight for racial equality in America.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States – a public holiday that commemorates a civil movement still so recent that it hasn’t quite faded from memory. Though Dr King’s much-quoted dream of a day when his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is a long way from being realised, the fact of Dr King’s commemoration in an American public holiday is itself an extraordinary marker of a culture’s capacity for accepting social change.

I’d like to take a moment to remember Bayard Rustin, the forgotten man in the history of Dr King. I’d never heard of Rustin until about ten years ago, when I was writing biographical entries of famous lesbian and gay people for The Routledge International Encyclopaedia of Queer Culture. As I researched Rustin’s life, I was staggered to learn about his contribution to Dr King’s campaign and the civil rights cause generally – it was like discovering that a story you’d been told about since childhood was missing one of its main characters.

Rustin’s life reads like a greatest hits collection of the American civil rights movement. He was born in 1912 in Pennsylvania, and raised a Quaker, embracing that community’s quiet and determined commitment to social justice. He moved to New York in 1937, where he became involved in efforts to defend and free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping two white women. He also joined the Young Communist League, black trade unions and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Though he later disavowed communism, his understanding of and commitment to equality and his tirelessness as a political strategist and activist owes much to his early participation in communist politics.

As a pacifist, he was imprisoned for three years as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Shortly after his release, he organised the “Journey of Reconciliation”, in which protestors deliberately violated the segregated seating patterns on buses and trains in the Southern states, foregrounding the more highly publicised protest of Rosa Parks. Regularly beaten and arrested, Rustin served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina. His account of the experience, serialised in the New York Post, prompted the abolition of chain gangs in the state legislature.

In 1948, Rustin travelled to India to meet with leaders of Ghandi’s civil rights movement and learn techniques of non-violent civil resistance. Rustin met and worked with Dr King on the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1958-9, and became his head strategist. Rustin was credited with persuading King to adopt a fully pacifist strategy in public life and dispense with bodyguards and personal weapons, despite the increased risk to his life in doing so. He organised the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, then the largest demonstration in American history, at which King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Rustin was openly gay at a time when very few Americans of any ethnicity were, especially African-American men, and one can only imagine the difficulties he faced reconciling his ethnic and sexual identities. He was arrested in 1953 for “sex perversion” with two other men in a parked car – a situation he contended was police entrapment, politically motivated to stymie his activist efforts – and he was imprisoned for two months. The uncomfortable truth of his sexuality meant that his contribution to the racial equality movement was often sidelined. Shortly after the March on Washington, Senator Strom Thurmond denounced the protest, calling Rustin a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual” and citing Rustin’s criminal conviction as evidence of the moral corruption of Dr King’s cause. On that occasion, Rustin was publicly defended by King, but his involvement in the civil rights struggle continued to be controversial. Encouraged by his colleagues not to become a public spokesperson, he ceded the stage graciously to Dr King, and became a behind-the-scenes advisor and strategist.

In his later years, Rustin spoke openly about homophobia within American society, and campaigned for gay civil rights, labour law reform, nuclear disarmament and the humane treatment of refugees. His activism extended beyond the African-American diaspora into advocacy for Japanese prisoners of war, Russian Jews attempting to repatriate to Israel, the Ghanean, Nigerian and Angolan independence movements and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His published essays include Down the Line (1971) and Strategies for Freedom: The Changing Patterns of Black Protest (1976). During the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin served on a number of humanitarian missions, aiding refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Haiti. He died in 1987, and is survived by his partner of ten years, Walter Nagle. Their relationship was as controversial as Rustin’s politics had once been – Nagle was white and considerably younger than Rustin, and was referred to in the press by a number of strange euphemisms over the years. (Rustin’s New York Times obituary described Nagle as Rustin’s “administrative assistant and adopted son”).

Sadly, the historical record favoured Dr King and mostly forgot about Rustin – a blind spot fuelled by homophobic discomfort over his sexuality that persists to this day. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about Rustin had, like me, never heard of him, and been amazed that his story isn’t more widely known.

The wonderful 2003 documentary, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin did much to redress public ignorance about Rustin’s life and work. And in November 2013, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, presented to individuals who have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours.” In the ceremony, Rustin was described as

“a giant in the American Civil Rights movement. Openly gay at a time when many had to hide who they loved, his unwavering belief that we are all equal members of a single human family took him from his first freedom ride to the LGBT rights movement. Thanks to his unparalleled skills as an organiser, progress that once seemed impossible, appears in retrospect, to have been inevitable…. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.

In what must have been a lovely moment, Walter Nagle, Rustin’s partner, accepted the award on Rustin’s behalf. It’s a moment that I hope will hopefully draw more well-deserved attention to this remarkable man.

Bayard Rustin is one of my all-time heroes. Let’s remember him today.

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