Now Reading
Meet Bayard Rustin: The hidden gay hero of civil rights

Meet Bayard Rustin: The hidden gay hero of civil rights

New York headquarters of the 1963 March on Washington

August 28, 1963 was a momentous day for African-American rights and a victory for a black, gay organizer, Bayard Rustin.

On that day 250,000 marchers gathered peacefully on the Washington Mall. They demanded the United States government fulfill the promises of freedom and equality enshrined in its founding documents.

The crowd included trade unions, religious bodies, women’s organizations, civil rights groups, and black and white individuals. They came from across the globe to stand in solidarity. They hoped to build a more inclusive nation.

On the steps of the monument to Abraham Lincoln, the President who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Rev Martin Luther King, Jr delivered one of the most famous addresses in history – his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Crowds in front of the Lincoln Memorial with Washington Memorial behind.
The March on Washington in 1963. National Archives

That clarion call was a dramatic climax to a summer of terror in the American South. Our nightly newscasts delivered to our living rooms the brutality of ‘law enforcement’. We saw police dogs and fire hoses unleashed on peaceful demonstrators. We heard how a white supremacist had assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom lifted the spirits of those present. It inspired freedom fighters worldwide who witnessed the assembly on television. The peaceful gathering helped mobilize support for civil rights legislation by convincing citizens of the righteousness of the cause.

Bayard Rustin, the mastermind of the march

Few people knew the mastermind behind the March’s organization was Bayard Rustin. He was a 51-year-old, longtime, nonviolent activist, involved in both domestic and international social justice work.

Though Rustin was well known in activist circles, civil rights leaders often kept him behind the scenes. They feared his unapologetic gay identity would discredit the causes he tirelessly worked to advance.

The March on Washington was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, but also in Bayard’s life. It enabled him to emerge from the shadows to become a powerful spokesman for the causes he espoused.

I became fascinated with the concept of nonviolent struggle

Two weeks after the March on Washington I entered high school.

I was raised in a lily-white suburban town. I had no firsthand knowledge of the daily struggles that Black Americans faced. Along with many of my fellow citizens, I saw images of racist brutality, but also the inspiring images from that hot August day.

A somewhat serious Roman Catholic youngster, I became fascinated with the concept of nonviolent struggle. I was captivated by the idea of resisting evil with love and goodness as preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.

How could I know that 14 years later, I would cross paths with the man who was largely responsible for introducing this tactic into my country’s movements for social justice?

Separate public facilities were the local custom

Bayard Rustin was raised in the small town of West Chester, Pennsylvania. It was just north of the Mason-Dixon line, the demarcation of the Northern and Southern states during our Civil War.

Although the town had no laws against racial integration, separate public facilities were the local custom when Rustin was born in 1912.

His grandparents raised Bayard and his grandmother instilled in him the values that guided him throughout his life. Julia Davis Rustin, who had been raised in a Quaker household and attended a Quaker elementary school.

A young Bayard with his football team.
A young Bayard with his football team. Henderson High School

Bayard was taught to speak up forcefully – but nonviolently – against injustice. His long career as a nonviolent activist began when, as a teenager, he protested against the segregated seating policies of the local movie theater.

Sit-ins, boycotts, demonstrations and ‘freedom-rides’

After attending two historically Black colleges, Bayard moved to New York City where he attended City College and joined the Young Communist League. He broke with the Communists when they reversed their anti-war stance and supported US entry into World War II.

Rustin protesting anti-Semitism in the 1940s.
Rustin protesting anti-Semitism in the 1940s. Library of Congress

Instead he began working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international Christian pacifist organization. The group’s primary mission was peace-building and disarmament. But Bayard and fellow staffer James Farmer convinced the FOR leadership that racism was a form of violence. They made the case that resisting racism should become part of the group’s work.

A small band of FOR activists began a series of nonviolent actions. They held sit-ins, boycotts, demonstrations and ‘freedom-rides’ to challenge racist laws and customs. The police often arrested and incarcerated them.

Rustin with Journey of Reconciliation participants, 1947.
Rustin with Journey of Reconciliation participants, 1947. Estate of Bayard Rustin

Watch this clip from the documentary Brother Outsider, explaining one of these Freedom Rides and what happened to Rustin:

Though small and local, these protests gave Rustin the experience that enabled him to become, in the words of US Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, ‘the best organizer on the planet’.

Rustin handing out anti-war leaflets in the 1950s.
Rustin handing out anti-war leaflets in the 1950s. Library of Congress

Partnering with Martin Luther King Jr

In 1955, Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Protest when she refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. Rustin was dispatched to advise the young minister who had become the spokesperson for the campaign, Rev Martin Luther King, Jr.

Organizers planned a one-day nonviolent protest which evolved into a year-long boycott. Eventually the Supreme Court banned racially segregated seating in public transportation. Rustin and King began a partnership that led to the 1957 The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Youth Marches for Integrated Schools, and other actions.

They laid the groundwork for the 1963 March on Washington, which was to be the largest demonstration in US history until that time.

Rustin (left) with sign for March on Washington
Rustin (left) with sign for March on Washington. Library of Congress

Despite this, the leadership of the black freedom struggle still feared the fallout Rustin could produce. They were concerned about his radical politics and his 1953 arrest on a ‘morals charge’. So they relegated him to a behind-the-scenes role.

Occasionally he even found himself exiled from Dr King’s inner circle. When that happened, Bayard immersed himself in the international movement for peace and disarmament. He spoke in England at the 1958 Aldermaston March against atomic weapons. And he organized the 1959 Sahara Protest against a French atomic test in Algeria.

Leading the movement from protest to politics

The African-American civil rights struggle had begun achieving legislative victories. Rustin saw the need for political action in an empowered black population. So he urged the movement to evolve ‘From Protest to Politics,’ the title of one of his most famous articles.

As racial barriers began to fall, both Rustin and Dr King recognized the larger, more entrenched challenges of poverty and economic inequality. They urged that government priorities be aligned more with human needs, rather than military defense.

After Dr King’s assassination in 1968, Rustin remained active in domestic civil rights. But again he returned to international human rights issues, including refugee resettlement and promoting democratic reform.  

At the time we met in 1977, Bayard was on the Board of Directors of the International Rescue Committee, Freedom House, and was the Chair of Social Democrats USA.

His home base, the A Philip Randolph Institute and Educational Fund, continued to serve as a liaison between African-American workers and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

During our time together, he began to speak out more about his life as a gay man. He addressed LGBTI activist groups and advocated for gay rights legislation. And he granted interviews to newspapers and magazines for the LGBTI audience.

‘You are very lucky to have such a nice young man to look after you’

Bayard was 65 when we met; I was 28. He was full of energy, full of life, always wanting to find something new, and not thinking about retiring in any sense of the word.

Bayard meets the pigeons in London's Trafalgar Square.
Bayard meets the pigeons in London’s Trafalgar Square. Walter Naegle

In August 1977, a few months into our relationship, Bayard and I were given the use of a vacation home in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.

The modern house, perched on a hillside with a spectacular view overlooking the harbor in Charlotte Amalie, was the perfect place for a relaxing week.

Not continuously occupied, it was sparsely furnished and without electricity for our first few days. But given the climate, the view, and some wonderful Caribbean rum, we were happy to ‘rough it’ for a time.

The University of the Virgin Islands had awarded Bayard an honorary degree the year before. Unbeknownst to us, our impending arrival came to the attention of Governor Cyril King. He dispatched a driver to meet us at the airport and offer us any assistance we might require.

We attended a luncheon in Bayard’s honor the next day. After a buffet of island delights and tropical drinks, we headed home, hoping for a swim in beautiful Magens Bay.

As I started the car, an elderly professor from the university approached Bayard’s open window. The gentleman leaned down slightly and said, smiling: ‘You are very lucky to have such a nice young man to look after you in your old age.’

Bayard thanked him, and as we drove off, we both started chuckling. Neither of us thought of Bayard as old, and we were equally lucky to have found one another!

He shinnied up a tree, plucking a few air plants

By then I was becoming accustomed to people recognizing Bayard in New York, saying hello or stopping us to talk. So I was taken aback when, sitting with him in an outdoor cafe in Charlotte Amalie, a voice cried out, ‘Walter!’

I turned to find a faculty member and several graduates from a nursing school where I had worked three years before. We exchanged greetings and invited the group to come to the house for a drink at sunset.

After shopping for drinks and hors d’oeuvres, we headed home. While driving through a forested area, Bayard commanded, ‘Stop the car!’

I pulled off the road and he sprang out and shinnied up a tree, plucking a few air plants to make the house more welcoming for our guests.

That, as the saying goes, was Bayard.

Bayard Rustin has given his name to high schools and community centers

August this year marked the 40th anniversary of that first vacation together. It also marked the 30th anniversary of Bayard’s death in 1987.

With his passing I lost a loving partner. And the world lost a charismatic and articulate spokesman for human rights and democracy.

In the last three decades, writers, filmmakers, activists in civil rights and labor, and the academic community have raised awareness of Bayard and his achievements.

He is now more widely known than in his lifetime.

High schools, community centers, and political action groups carry his name.

The award-winning documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, directed by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, has reached millions of viewers around the globe. People now watch it on campuses, in community venues, and as a diversity training tool.

Watch the trailer here and find out more about the documentary here:

A recent short documentary Bayard & Me (Super Deluxe) is doing well at film festivals. Created by Matt Wolf, it grew out of a StoryCorps interview I did with my niece, Ericka Naegle, in 2015.

You can watch it here:

‘An unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality’

In 2013, President Barack Obama bestowed a posthumous Medal of Freedom – America’s highest civilian honor – on Bayard.

You can see Obama speak about Rustin here:

President Obama described him as ‘an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all [who] 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.’

He was all of those things, but also a warm, loving gentleman with a mischievous sense of humor.

I was deeply grateful to accept the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. And I am equally grateful to everyone who has been part of this process of remembering Bayard.

If you’d like to join that effort, I invite you to join the Rustin Facebook page:

Please visit it and become a member if you are so inclined.

Bayard never gave in to hate

This year has been particularly disturbing for those of us who believe in equality and social justice. We know where Bayard would stand: he believed unequivocally in free speech and nonviolence. When he and Malcolm X debated in the public square, their weapons were intellect, reason, facts, passion, and even humor.

Watch Rustin debate Malcolm X:

As Dr King said: ‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.’

Rustin at the School of Nonviolence.
Rustin at the School of Nonviolence. Estate of Bayard Rustin

Bayard never gave in to hate. In these perilous times, I am buoyed by the memory of his optimism, his insistence on speaking truth to power, and his belief that collective action can produce deep and lasting change.

The essayist Andrew Sullivan captured these aspects of Bayard’s legacy in a piece he wrote for TIME Magazine:

‘Somehow, Rustin never succumbed to the anger that was his right; his spirit remained as light and as positive as his beautiful tenor voice. And all these years later, that’s what endures: the memory of a man unbeaten by the hate around him, dreaming of a future in which the work of integration, black and white, gay and straight, is the moral – and joyful – duty of all of us.

About the author

Walter Naegle met Bayard Rustin in 1977 and was his partner for the last 10 years of his life. Naegle is the co-author of Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist. He serves as executive director of The Bayard Rustin Fund, which works to sustain Rustin’s vision of a peaceful and equitable world. Gay Star News is indebted to him for this personal account.