12. Bayard Rustin
What do a ‘Communist draft-dodging homosexual sex-pervert’ and a ‘Civil Rights hero’ have in common?
Well, for starters, they’re sometimes the same person.
Bayard Rustin was an activist and teacher who played a key role in the Civil Rights movement. His accomplishments included:
- Rustin moved to New York after spending time at university and in teacher training, and quickly became active in civil rights politics. He registered as a conscientious objector to World War II, and went to California to help protect the interests and properties of Japanese-Americans who were interred for the duration of the war.
- He worked on the campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys, and was an early worker on the campaign for desegretation on public transport. In 1942, he was arrested for the first of many times for repeatedly refusing to move from the front seat of a bus when asked to do so.
- In 1947, he helped organise the first of the Freedom Rides, sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith and mixed-race pacifist group. He was arrested while on the Ride and served twenty-two days in a chain gang in North Carolina
- In 1948, he travelled to India to learn from Gandhi’s pacifist independence movement.
- In 1956, he went to work as a close advisor to Dr Martin Luther King, passing on the techniques of non-violent resistance that he learned from the Gandhian movement.
- And finally, he was the main organiser of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — the event at which Dr King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (link is to video). It was in no small part thanks to Rustin’s careful organisation (of everything from bus marshals to bathroom facilities) that the march was able to stay peaceful and non-violent.
So why have you never heard about Bayard Rustin in history class?
Because Bayard Rustin was gay.
(or, perhaps more accurately, because Bayard Rustin was openly gay and not particularly interested in keeping quiet about it).
In 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena, California for having consensual sex in a parked car with two male partners. He was intially charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct: the charges were later altered to a lesser count of ‘sex perversion’, to which he pleaded guilty. After his conviction, he was asked to leave the FOR,and he was later shunned by many members of the civil rights movement.
It’s important to remember that this may not have been completely due to the homophobia of the other civil rights leaders — they were acting under the fear of being smeared or blackmailed by right-wing opposition (after all, these events were taking place at the height of McCarthyism). Their fears weren’t ill-founded, either — in 1963, right-wing Senator Strom Thurmond lectured Congress on Rustin’s ‘Communist draft-dodging homosexual sex-pervert’ ways. Some opponents even threatened to circulate rumours that Rustin and Dr King were having an affair.
Nevertheless, Rustin never seems to have been inclined to deny his sexuality or to keep it a secret. Rachelle Horowitz, a fellow March organiser, commented that she thought ‘he’d never heard there was a closet’. Immediately after his removal from the FOR Rustin briefly saw a psychiatrist, Dr Robert Ascher, but seems to have quickly given up on the idea of attempting to ‘cure’ himself of being gay. He continued to have male partners, and formed a long-term relationship with Walter Naegle in the late 1970s which lasted until the end of his life. As the litany of his achievements above suggests, he also managed to overcome the stigma of having been arrested for his sexuality. After being dismissed from the FOR, Rustin became secretary of the War Resisters’ League, and later worked as a secretary to Dr King.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin continued to work for civil rights — and among those rights were gay rights. He was one of the first thinkers to begin comparing the post-Stonewall gay rights movement to the Civil Rights movement, and in 1986 he gave a speech entitled ‘The New N****** Are Gays’ — a statement that I’m not going to comment on aside from saying that I think he was much more qualified to have an opinion about the topic than I am. He also worked to found Project South Africa, a programme which sought to connect concerned Americans with groups working for democracy in SA. By the time of his death in 1987, his FBI file stretched to over 10,000 pages.
At a time when post-1960s white American society was settling into cosily mythologising the history of the Civil Rights movement into a non-threatening, happy story of ‘Rosa Parks sat down on the bus because her feet were tired and then racism was over, hooray’, Rustin continued to ask difficult questions, cause trouble and demand more from his society — and for that, I sort of have to love him.
PDF of Rustin’s essay ‘From Montgomery to Stonewall’ plus a pamphlet authored by him preparing marchers for the 1963 March: http://www.illinoisprobono.org/calendarUploads/Rustin%20Documents.pdf
Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner, speaks about his life: http://rustin.org/?page_id=11
Detailed bio of Rustin from ‘Waging Nonviolence’: http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/03/revisiting-rustin-on-his-centennial/
Profile on KNOWhomo with a brief excerpt from ‘The New N****** Are Gays’: http://knowhomo.tumblr.com/post/11565611172
Washington Post article on Rustin: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/bayard-rustin-organizer-of-the-march-on-washington-was-crucial-to-the-movement/2011/08/17/gIQA0oZ7UJ_story.html
Website for Brother Outsider, a film biography of Rustin: http://rustin.org/?page_id=2
Article on Rustin’s speech ‘The New N****** are Gays’: http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/damnation/gays-are-the-new-niggers/
Wikipedia biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayard_Rustin