Did you know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s colleague and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, was an openly gay man?
The Barbara Jordan/Bayard Rustin Coalition is honored to be named in memory of two amazing, trailblazing Black LGBT leaders who represent the values, principles, advocacy, and spirit of this organization, one of whom is Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Rustin began his impressive political career at an early age after an education at Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College and City College of New York (never received B.A.). Not only was he an integral part of the African-American civil rights movement, but became one of the leading advocates and examples for gay equality.
Bayard Rustin’s celebrated career captured the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who recruited Rustin as an assistant and colleague in 1956. Below is a streaming time line of affiliations and causes that led up to Rustin’s lead role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech:A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.
Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.
Today, the United States is still struggling with many of the issues Bayard Rustin sought to change during his long, illustrious career. His focus on civil and economic rights and his belief in peace, human rights and the dignity of all people remain as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and 60s.
Rustin’s biography is particularly important for lesbian and gay Americans, highlighting the major contributions of a gay man to ending official segregation in America. Rustin stands at the confluence of the great struggles for civil, legal and human rights by African-Americans and lesbian and gay Americans. In a nation still torn by racial hatred and violence, bigotry against homosexuals, and extraordinary divides between rich and poor, his eloquent voice is needed today.
In February 1956, when Bayard Rustin arrived in Montgomery to assist with the nascent bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. had not personally embraced nonviolence. In fact, there were guns inside King’s house, and armed guards posted at his doors. Rustin persuaded boycott leaders to adopt complete nonviolence, teaching them Gandhian nonviolent direct protest.
Apart from his career as an activist, Rustin the man was also fun-loving, mischievous, artistic, gifted with a fine singing voice, and known as an art collector who sometimes found museum-quality pieces in New York City trash. Historian John D’Emilio calls Rustin the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement.
1937 Rustin began his activist career by training at the American Friends Service Committee.
1937 Became organizer for the Youth Communist League (later to become anti-Communist).
1941 Quit Youth Communist League. Colleague of A. Philip Randolph, President of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Race Relations Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
1942 Field Secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Colleague of Norman Thomas, a leader in the democratic socialist movement.
1947 Helped plan the Journey of Reconciliation “freedom ride” which paved way for the freedom rides in the early 1960’s. After being arrested, Rustin’s experiences on a chain gang were chronicled on The New York Post which initiated an investigation that eliminated chain gangs in North Carolina.
1940’s Assisted in lobbying President Truman to eliminate segregation in the military.
1945 Organized the Free India Committee, fighting for India’s independence from Britain.
1951 Organized the Committee to Support South African Resistance (American Committee on Africa).
1953 Joined the War Resisters League.
1956 Began assisting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
1957 Organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.
1960’s Helped form the Recruitment and Training Program (R-T-P). Vice Chairman of the International Rescue Committee.
1963 Deputy Director and chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King presented the “I Have a Dream” speech.
1964 Helped found the A. Randolph Institute (APRI).
1980 Participated in the March for Survival on the Thai-Cambodian border.
1982 Helped found the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Rights. Chairman of the Executive committee of Freedom House.
1983 Rustin’s report South Africa: Is Peaceful Change Possible? led to the formation of Project South Africa.
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