Bayard Rustin-LGBT Civil Rights Leader
On August 28, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr addressed 250,000 people during the March on Washington, ending the historic event with his "I Have a Dream Speech." In the 55 years since that event, Dr. King has become a world-renowned figure, but few people know of the man who was the chief organizer of the March on Washington and Dr. King's mentor.
Bayard Rustin was an openly gay black man as well as a pacifist, a practitioner of Gandhian non-violence, an advocate of socialist reform, and a civil rights leader.
Rustin's homosexuality was something that he neither felt ashamed about nor hid. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the authorities and his enemies from using it against him. He was arrested several times throughout his life for "lewd conduct" and "vagrancy" and his openness about his sexuality angered prison authorities, resulting in his detention at higher security prisons.
Following one arrest, an organization that he had been working with for years, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, demanded his resignation. After this painful separation, he realized his sexuality would continue to make him a target, stating, "I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer."
And, unfortunately, Rustin was correct- that was not the last time that his homosexuality would be used against him. When Rustin and King were organizing a march to be held during the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, a black representative from New York, caused a rift between the two. Powell did not want the march to interfere with the convention so he threatened to tell the press that King and Rustin were lovers if King did not disassociate himself from Rustin. Buckling to the pressure, King complied and the march was cancelled.
However, three years later fate intervened and King and Rustin were reunited. Shortly after, they began preparations for the March on Washington. Strom Thurmond, a long-time defender of segregation, tried to undermine Rustin's efforts by exposing his past, calling him a "communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual." But Thurmond’s attempt to deter the march failed and the March on Washington was a great success, gathering international recognition and landing Rustin and his co-organizer A. Philip Rudolph a cover spot on Life magazine.
After the march, Rustin continued to be a champion for civil rights, focusing on securing jobs for African Americans throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the 70s. But it wasn't until the 1980s that he picked up the torch for gay rights. In a speech he said "Twenty-five, thirty years ago the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian."
Because gay marriage was not legal during his lifetime, Rustin ensured his partner Walter Naegle would be his beneficiary by adopting him. Naegle, who was 37 years Rustin's junior, was Rustin's partner for the last 10 years of his life. In 1987 Rustin died of a perforated appendix while on a humanitarian mission in Haiti.
In 2013 President Obama posthumously awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Naegle was presented the award on Rustin's behalf.
The year before his death Rustin said the major lesson he had learned in fighting for human rights for 50 years was simple: "No group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment."
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