As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday I thought it would be nice to hear a little about the man who helped to make MLK into an icon. His name was Bayard Rustin. Bayard was an openly gay man and civil rights activist who played a key role in the success of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. He was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington at which MLK gave his now famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Bayard was also an early pioneer for gay rights and equality. Rustin first began campaigning against the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws early in his youth and would continue his activism throughout his adult life. He co-organized the Journey of Reconciliation which was the first of the Freedom Rides to test the ruling of the Supreme Court that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Bayard was an avid follower of the nonviolent resistance techniques of Mahatma Gandhi and though nonviolent, his many political protests would lead to several arrests. Rustin served twenty-two days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation. But it was his arrest for homosexual activity (consensual sodomy) in Pasadena to which he plead guilty in 1953 that would often manifest as an impediment to his success as a civil-rights activist for years to come.
Bent but unbowed Bayard continued to remain open and candid about his sexuality, often to the chagrin of civil-rights leaders and to the delight of their adversaries. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., forced Bayard to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a conference that Bayard himself had helped to organize) by threatening to discuss his arrest for homosexuality in Congress. When Rustin began organizing the March on Washington in 1963, Senator Strom Thurmond called Bayard a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual” and produced an FBI photograph of Bayard sitting and talking to MLK while King was bathing. The implication being that the two were lovers, an allegation both denied. But despite King’s support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins was adamant that Rustin’s public profile be diminished and actively tried to cover up his role in planning the march. Bayard would continue his civil rights activism throughout the 1970’s though he was often viewed as a “sell-out” by the burgeoning Black Power movement, whose identity politics Bayard took issue with and rejected. In the early 1980’s he testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill and, in 1986, gave the infamous speech “The New Niggers Are Gays,” in which he stated, “Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.” Bayard Rustin died on August 24, 1987 but his tireless advocacy in life in support of freedom for all people continues to reverberate and inspire the quest for equality long after his death.