Bayard Rustin was born on March 12, 1912. For half a century, Rustin was an influential leader of the civil rights movement, advocating for nonviolent demonstrations and equal rights.
Rustin was raised by his grandparents near Philadelphia. His grandmother was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and such leaders as W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson were often guests in the family home while Rustin was growing up.
His political activity began when he was in college. Rustin attended Wilberforce University, a historically black university in Ohio, and was expelled during his senior year for organizing a strike.
In the late 1930s, Rustin was briefly involved with the Communist Party of the USA. At the time, the party was encouraged by Russia to work for civil rights. As World War II began, Russia directed the CPUSA to abandon its civil rights work and throw its energy into getting the United States to enter the war.
With that change in direction, Rustin left the party and began working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith peace and justice organization. In 1941, his first major project with FOR, working with A. Philip Randolph, was to organize a March on Washington to protest employment discrimination. The march was scheduled for July 1, but Randolph and Rustin agreed to cancel it when President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order desegregating federal job training programs and employment related to defense contracts.
In 1942, Rustin assisted in the creation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization devoted to pacifist work for equal rights. Rustin was not directly involved in the founding of CORE, but its founders later described him as the organization's "uncle."
During World War II, several vocally pacifist members of FOR and CORE were imprisoned for violation of the Selective Service Act. While in prison, Rustin organized protests against segregated dining facilities.
During the 1940s, Rustin continued to be involved in various aspects of the civil rights movement. FOR sent him to California to work on protecting the property of Japanese-Americans who had been sent to internment camps. Rustin was arrested several times for violating various state laws about segregation on public buses.
In 1948, Rustin traveled to India for a conference on nonviolence hosted by leaders of Mahatma Gandhi's movement. The conference had been organized before the assassination of Gandhi earlier that year.
Rustin was arrested in Pasadena in 1953 for "sex perversion" after he was found having sex with another man in a parked car. Rustin was more open than many men of his era about his homosexuality; he certainly didn't make a point of telling people about it, but neither did he attempt to hide it from his friends and family. The arrest led to his firing from FOR, and he became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League.
Rustin met Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956. King was planning the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and wanted advice on Gandhian nonviolence. The two men worked well together, and in 1958, they organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the era's major civil rights organization. Rustin was forced to resign from the SCLC in 1960 by New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who threatened to discuss his morals charges in Congress.
Those charges had led some civil rights leaders to distance themselves from Rustin, but when his old friend A. Philip Randolph began planning a new march on Washington, twenty years after the cancellation of his earlier such march, he called on Rustin to help organize it. The August 1963 March on Washington was a pivotal event of the civil rights era, and a resounding success for Rustin and Randolph.
In a controversial 1964 essay, "From Protest to Politics," Rustin began moving towards a more conservative view of the civil rights movement. He argued that the black working class should join forces with white unions, churches, and workers to work toward their common economic goals. He also argued that the growing Black Power movement was dangerous, and would alienate the white allies that the African-American community would need to reach its goals.
Rustin continued to work for civil rights, and in the 1970s, he became more involved in labor movements. In 1972, Rustin became co-chairman of Social Democrats USA, the political party that had earlier been known as the Socialist Party of the USA.
In the 1980s, Rustin began for the first time to publicly address gay rights issues, testifying before the New York state legislature as it considered gay rights legislation. He never considered himself to be an important gay rights activist, and declined a 1986 invitation to contribute to an anthology of essays by black gay men, saying, "While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights."
Rustin died of a perforated appendix on August 24, 1987. Because of his sexuality and his early history with the Communist Party, he was not thought to be a viable public face for the civil rights movement, and most of his important work in that movement was done behind the scenes. But within the movement, his work and his influence were recognized, and he was a more influential figure than his public reputation would suggest. Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 by President Barack Obama.
Rustin's most important writing is collected in Time on Two Crosses (e-book | print), and his letters are gathered in I Must Resist (e-book | print). John D'Emilio is the author of the Rustin biography Lost Prophet (e-book | print). Rustin's life story is also told in the documentary Brother Outsider (streaming | DVD), and in a musical tribute from the One Voice Mixed Chorus, an LGBT chorus from the Twin Cities.
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