When segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond took the floor weeks before the March on Washington, he attempted to denounce the civil rights movement in its entirety by exposing one man’s personal life.
In his speech that day, Thurmond called Bayard Rustin, head organiser for the march, a “communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual.” Thurmond even entered into the record a picture of Rustin speaking to Martin Luther King Jr. while he sat in the bathtub.
Thurmond’s hateful words came too late. The march continued, with Rustin at the helm. But history hasn’t always recognised the momentum he added to black politics in the 50s and 60s. As an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era, Rustin faced persecution and judgement, forcing him behind the scenes.
Only now, 50 years after his greatest accomplishment, will the country realise Rustin’s heroism. During the march’s commemorative services on Wednesday, Rustin will receive the highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Forced to stay in the background
For those who have heard of Rustin, few understand the immense contributions he made to the civil rights movement. In 1963, he spent only 10 weeks planning the March on Washington, still one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. Most credit King for adopting Gandhi’s tireless tactics of non-violence. But Brother Outsider, an award-winning documentary about Rustin’s life, showed he introduced King to these ideals. Rustin also reportedly came up with the idea of selling buttons, at 25 cents each, to fund the march — a tribute to the power of his grassroots organising.
Even before the march, Rustin participated in many other events that furthered civil rights in this country. In 1947, he helped to plan the “Journey of Reconciliation,” which challenged racial discrimination during interstate travel made illegal by the Supreme Court in 1946.
Along the way, participants intentionally violated segregated seating on buses and trains. They faced terrible violence and even time on chain gangs. Nonetheless, the journey’s success served as a prototype for the Freedom Rides of the early ’60s, according to Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle.
Yet for all of Rustin’s organizational brilliance, “because of his sexual orientation, [he] was forced to stay in the background of his greatest triumphs,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told USA Today.
In 1955, Rustin, once again, helped organise a demonstration, this time the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A reporter, however, threatened to expose Rustin’s sexuality, and King, as well as other black leaders, encouraged him to leave town. He hid in the trunk of a car in the middle of night to escape the press, according to Spare Change News.
In a Q&A with the Chicago Tribune, Brother Outsider’s producer and director Bennett Singer discussed Rustin’s arrest for having sex with two white men in Pasadena, Calif. Charged with sexual misconduct, Rustin plead down to a “morals charge.” Weeks later, Rustin lost his job at the Fellowship for Reconciliation, a Christian pacifist group speaking out against militarism and war.
“Apparently, where he was found was a known area for ‘cruising.’ But I think it was a set up,” Bill Doggett, spokesperson for the Bayard Rustin Coalition, said. “During the McCarthy Era, there was no better way to embarrass someone than with a morals charge.” Most notably, renowned gay tennis in the 50s player Bill Tilden spent time in-and-out of jail for multiple morals charges.
Rustin later became the first field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the March on Washington’s main sponsors. Yet their current online page dedicated to him fails to mention his sexual identity. Later in his life Rustin campaigned for gay rights, testifying on behalf of New York City’s gay rights bill. He also gave a speech in 1986, both championed and criticised by other activists, in which he claimed “Gays are the new n*******.”
On the issue of homophobia in the black community in the 1960s, Charles P. Pierce wrote in his Grantland piece about NBA player Jason Collin’s decision to come out of the closet, “Homophobia in the black community — indeed, even among the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s — was some of the most virulent and stubborn of all.”
Getting the credit he deserves
In light of the changing attitudes of recent times, Rustin may finally receive the attention owed to him for his substantial contribution. At this year’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama decided to award Rustin posthumously with the Presidential Medal for Freedom, the highest civilian honour. “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights,” the White House said of the President’s decision to honour Rustin this year.
He, along with Sally Ride — another recipient this year — remains one of the few openly gay people to ever receive the award.
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