Bayard Rustin: Unsung hero of the civil rights movement

No room for an out gay man in King's circle

| January 21, 2013
Rustin speaks with civil rights activists before a demonstration, 1964

Rustin speaks with civil rights activists before a demonstration, 1964

- Library of Congress

Numerous celebrations this week will honor the legacy of fallen civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year is especially poignant: It marks the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have A Dream" speech, which he delivered during the historic March on Washington in 1963. But I would like to spend a moment celebrating an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin.

Rustin was a true Renaissance man who shined as an educator, artist, activist, visionary and organizer. He was also pacifist who studied the nonviolent protest techniques of Gandhi. Many are not aware that Rustin was the genius behind organizing the March on Washington, one of the most ambitious and historical peace rallies of that era.

In February 1956, Rustin arrived in Alabama to assist King with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and found armed guards and guns in the young preacher's home. King was far from a pacifist. It was through Rustin's guidance that King eventually adopted his nonviolent philosophy of protest. For a while, Rustin served as a close adviser and would help mold King into the globally recognized symbol of nonviolence.

But if Rustin played such an important role, why do so few people know about him?

Rustin was an openly gay man, which didn't sit well with many leaders in the civil rights movement. (We have to remember that those were very different times.) Rustin was a man of great character but also an out gay man who proudly walked in his own truth. He refused to live in the closet, so King's advisers asked him to quietly step back from the spotlight.

I am an African-American gay man. Though I was older once the civil rights laws had been passed, in many areas of the South, where I grew up, it took awhile to change the culture and mindset of most folks, white and black. I remember separate rest rooms and even a "whites only" laundromat in my grandparents' small town.

I am also the product of a historically black college and have been an educator at two historically black institutions. Not even in environments committed to the black experience was I ever introduced to Rustin. I discovered him and his monumental contribution to the civil rights movement years into my tenure. As excited as I was to find this unknown black gay hero, I could not shake the anger I felt for being denied such an important role model. I still don't understand how a marginalized group can marginalize one of its own.

I studied film in graduate school and believe part of the responsibility of storytellers is to sometimes re-address history. Boycott is the only contemporary film I have seen that acknowledges Rustin and includes him in the historical narrative. Rustin's meeting with King plays out beautifully in the movie.

There is also a wonderful award-winning documentary, Brother Outsider, that chronicles Rustin's contributions and complex life. (You can find more information on the documentary at The documentary's interviews, some featuring Rustin, show how challenging it was — and, sadly, still is — for a gay African American to negotiate and reconcile his or her ethnicity and sexuality within the black community.

As I reflect on the "I Have A Dream" speech today, I feel there cannot be a more appropriate example of King's expectations that a man like Rustin can finally take his rightful place in history. A place Rustin earned regardless of his sexuality, but because of the strength of his character and fearless commitment to peacefully serving his community.

Charles Easley is an educator with a background in communications and media. He often writes on race, class, gender and sexuality.


Comments (25)

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Insightful and educational- also- it is exactly by re-addressing the past that we can shape a better future- thanks for this article-Peace

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Posted by Mike Watson on 01/22/2013 at 10:38 AM

@Mike Watson thanks man for reading and sharing your perspective!

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Posted by Charles Easley on 01/22/2013 at 11:50 AM

Brilliant article. I am adding the independent film to my Netflix account to learn more about the topic.

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Posted by jaybadz on 01/22/2013 at 1:39 PM

Very insightful and considering Obama speech yesterday a great topic to bring up. In a world where gay people struggle for equal rights! I hope that this is the start to a new age and a new movement to give everyone equal rights!!

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Posted by Concerned Citizen on 01/22/2013 at 2:06 PM

@Jaybadz thank you for reading and please spread the word. I am glad you are seeing the film and documentary as well. He was definitely an incredible historical figure.

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Posted by Charles Easley on 01/22/2013 at 2:51 PM

@Concerned Citizen You are correct considering the President's Inaugural speech where he mentioned equality for gay Americans it is good that we see there has always been a very influential gay contribution to our history by people like Mr. Rustin. Thank you for reading and sharing on this topic!

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Posted by Charles Easley on 01/22/2013 at 2:56 PM

Bayard was a true visionary that was courageous on so many levels. It is a shame that some Black men are still afraid to live the life that Bayard was brave enough to live decades ago.

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Posted by Latrese Williams on 01/23/2013 at 12:45 PM

Little does one know where the road of life will lead them. As a black Gay man, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I was on a similar road that paralleled the road on which Bayard Rustin traveled. In 1956, at age 15, I caused a event that changed the course of events in the small town where I grew up, and miraculously, six weather-beaten Shacks with Pot belly Stoves were turned into a palatial new school for black students just two years after "Brown v. the Board of Education, 1954." From that day forward, new schools for blacks and whites sprang up all over Georgia. Six year later, I graduated head of my class as I watched from afar the first blacks to integrate the University of Georgia. I pushed on to C.U.N.Y. after getting beat down during sit-in demonstrations at southern Lunch Counters, and became a student of the renowned Dr. John Hope Franklin at Brooklyn College in 1962. Like Mr. Rustin, I was a Civil Rights activist as well as a Gay Rights activist. In 1969, I was a participant in the Stonewall Inn raid where the Gay Liberation in New York found its wings and took off in week long protests and riots. Time Magazine assessed the Stonewall protest to be one of the Ten most influential protest of the 20th Century

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Posted by Gabby on 01/24/2013 at 1:20 AM

@Latrese Williams You are so right. When you look at a man who was willing to live his life as a openly gay man during the civil rights movement it makes you wonder why we still have folks leading the DL life today. Thank you for reading and sharing your views on this topic

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Posted by Charles Easley on 01/24/2013 at 10:47 AM

@Gabby Wow you have paralleled the life of Mr. Rustin. But you have had significant contributions of your own to our history. I am very encouraged by your story. I would like to speak to you about maybe participating in a project I have coming up regarding being gay in the south. Thank you for reading and sharing your very inspiring story!

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Posted by Charles Easley on 01/24/2013 at 10:51 AM

Great Article! Your authentic perpesctive offers much insight. Thank you so much for sharing this, it was very educational.

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Posted by Michelle Laing on 01/24/2013 at 7:20 PM

@Michelle Laing thank you so much for reading and your support....: )

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Posted by Charles Easley on 01/25/2013 at 9:15 AM

Great to see a regular column on these critical subject matters.

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Posted by DollarMargueritaIowan on 01/26/2013 at 11:55 AM

Rustin is one of my own beloved heroes, and I was honored last fall to finally meet and talk with his surviving partner, Walter Naegle, at the dedication of a memorial plaque to Rustin and 17 others as a part of Chicago's marvelous, unprecedented "outdoor museum" of LGBT history, the Legacy Walk. He still lives in their New York apartment once bugged by the FBI. However, though it is true that because Rustin was gay he was shamelessly repeatedly shoved back into the shadows of the black civil rights movement to which he contributed so much, the words "he was an out gay man who proudly walked in his own truth" no doubt read to many as if he was "out" in the same way, e.g., Ellen is today, or even gay movement pioneer Frank Kameny in 1965 when he and others first picketed the White House. It was far less that he was treated the way he was by those such as Roy Wilkins, then executive secretary of the NAACP, and late black Cong. Adam Clayton Powell [who blackmailed King into disassociating with Rustin for a time by threatening to tell the press King and Rustin were lovers which they weren’t, of course] because he came out TO them as much as it was they heard he was gay through gossip generally, and the newspaper accounts of Rustin's arrest on a sex charge in 1953. Up until the last couple of years of his life, he was like the type of gay man that still exists in 2013, who, even though those around them know they're gay, and they would never deny it if asked, would never INITIATE conversation about or make comments around nongays such as, "my lover Walter and I went to a gay bar last night." As Naegle, 38 years younger than Rustin, has said: "Bayard came from a generation that really didn't talk about such things.”

Gay historian John D’Emilio, whose 2003 biography, "Lost Prophet, The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” first brought Rustin’s full story to the world, wrote: "By the 1980s, Naegle was pushing Rustin to take the next step. There were still relatively few homosexuals of stature who had come out…. He was wanted as a role model, a spokesperson, by a movement that claimed allegiance to ideals of justice and equality to which Rustin had devoted his life. As invitations from gay organizations arrived in the mail, Naegle ‘encouraged him to go speak at these things. I think if I hadn’t been working in the office at the time, when these invitations came in, he probably wouldn’t have done them….’ Gay black men especially sought him out.” So in 1985, Rustin finally had his official “public” coming out through some speaking and writing about homophobia, both historically and contemporaneously such as in relation to the "Bowers v. Hardwick" Supreme Court decision and reactions to AIDS, and lobbying for New York City's gay rights bill. Still in 1986 he wrote: "I did not 'come out of the closet' voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. 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. The credit for that belongs to others. While I support full equality, under the law, for homosexuals, I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter.” And, sadly, he died the next year.

This contradiction is one of the things Naegle and I discussed. Nevertheless, I understand why a black man, born in 1912 and repeatedly demeaned and ostracized by others in both the peace and civil rights movements which meant so much to him, fired from one because of his arrest, driven for a time from the other because of Powell’s blackmail, publicly denounced by Sen. Strom Thurmond as a "Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual," carefully walked the path he did. That takes NOTHING from his courage in the face of beatings, in federal prison as a pacifist, and on a chain gang for challenging bus segregation 8 years before Rosa Parks did, or all the other things he uniquely contributed to the world. I believe he was a great, great man to whom statues should be built, and his story told in every public school history book—including that he was gay—which the Pennsylvania high school NAMED for him still refuses to address. But he was a lily that does not need gilding.

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Posted by Michael Bedwell on 01/26/2013 at 8:20 PM

Great article. Thanks for opening my eyes. I'll be checking out the movies.

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Posted by jec53 on 01/27/2013 at 10:09 AM

@ DollarMargueritaIowan Thank you for reading and I am glad you enjoy the content. Do I assume from your name that you are from or had a stint in Iowa? I was there for 3 Please keep reading and sharing!

Posted by Charles Easley on 01/27/2013 at 8:26 PM

@ jec53 Thank you and please check out the films and documentary I would be curious to see what you Please keep reading and sharing!

Posted by Charles Easley on 01/27/2013 at 8:27 PM

@ Michael Bedwell Thank you so much for giving us even more history of Bayard Rustin. I am always excited to hear more about this exciting historical figure. I understand Mr. Rustin's reluctance to be an "out" gay person but I also have to put his decision within a historical contextual framework so he still gets much

Thank you for sharing your very personal perspective on this topic. Please keep reading and sharing!

Posted by Charles Easley on 01/27/2013 at 8:34 PM

I hear you…lol.

Maybe this has resonance as we enter Black History Month.

Being born in the very heart of the ward that hosted most of the civil rights movement in Atlanta at the height of the movement, I l saw first hand the work of many troopers who never received their due.

It is very true that Bayard Rustin was an astute social and civil rights activist and even that he was a concurrently a trailblazer for LGBT issues as a very out gay man. Still I believe Rustin pursued the Civil Right movement knowing its leadership was largely set and its Judeo-Christian principles tightly guarded. He knew that would lessen his public visibility with those men and women who at least outwardly were very strict persons of the cloth and whose politics public played out in a very traditional way. We have since learned that even there things were not always as they were portrayed.

Still Rustin proved to care more about the overall abiding state of the race than his own personal accords. But his life and contributions to the movement are clearly very public record—though apparently impetus to view that chronicle is not so much so.


He was born in Pennsylvania, went to school in Ohio, lived in Harlem, and traveled to India and Africa. WEB Dubois and James Weldon Johnson were friends of his guardians and visitors in his home as a child. He debated both Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael publicly. Beyond King and The March on Washington, he influenced President Harry Truman and advised Ghana Minister Kwame Nkrumah and Nigeria Nnamdi Azikiwe, James Farmer, Jr, Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph, William Julius Wilson and Carl Gersham, The man was a educator, scholar, activist, unionist, organizer, Quaker, pacifist, communist, singer, arranger, traveler and researcher. Further, his nonviolent pioneering work predated the modern American Civil Rights movement by more than three decades and he outlive the major luminaries of it and black social movements by about the same period of time.

Clearly his sexual orientation did not lessen his public service value and those advocates of the same cannot deny he was one of the most intelligent influential men for civil, human and social rights that has ever lived in this or any country.

A favorite Bayard Rustin side note: Six years ago his home town, West Chester Pennsylvania, impressed with his achievements some two decades after his death, decided to confer its most famous native son with a noteworthy distinction: to name a brand new $70 million high school in his honor. That was before the community got wind that he was gay, a Communist Party member and a World War II dissenter. Many in the community wanted a different name above the school as a result. But on a vote of 6-3, the school board voted to move ahead with Bayard Rustin High School. The school board president, Rogers Vaughn said, “The contributions that Mr. Rustin made (aren’t) just to civil rights but to the whole United States.


And what a significant way to educationally inform a new generation about non violent struggle through the familiar angle local boy leaves home and does home and whole world a whole lot of good.

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Posted by tttonykp on 01/31/2013 at 2:33 PM

I am still in shock and dismayed that many people do not know who Mr. Rustin was and his important contributions of the Civil Rights Movement. I live in Atlanta and know some of the people who were a part of that movement with Dr. King. I am going to make it a point to ask them why his contribution has not been recognized . I think that it is a shame that his name is not known for his important contributions to our American History.

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Posted by Naylon D. Mitchell on 02/05/2013 at 8:11 PM

I'm overwhelmed by how much wonderful feedback this and other "Class is In Session" pieces have gotten. I, too, saw the excellent Rustin doc and was moved and enlightened. Thank you so much for your insightful contributions to CL, Charles. We're thrilled to have you! -- Mark Kemp, editor in chief

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Posted by Mark Kemp on 02/07/2013 at 2:38 PM

@tttonykp "Still Rustin proved to care more about the overall abiding state of the race than his own personal accords. But his life and contributions to the movement are clearly very public record—though apparently impetus to view that chronicle is not so much so. "

Brother T you have captured the spirit and integrity of Rustin so well in that statement.

Rustin was certainly clear about the political leaders and climate of faith-based climate of the time but as you state he saw the bigger picture of where we were as a community and a nation and he fought the good fight.

Thank you for reading and always sharing your very learned perspective!

Posted by Charles Easley on 02/11/2013 at 11:13 AM

@Naylon D. Mitchell I also lived in Atlanta for several years and attended a few civil rights events but never did anyone mention nor give credit to Rustin and his contribution.

I am encouraged that folks like you will spread the word and help us to honor this man and what he did for the civil rights movement.

Thank you for reading and your advocacy!

Posted by Charles Easley on 02/11/2013 at 11:15 AM

@Mark Kemp Thank you for your support and I too am very excited about the response to "Class is in Session" I look forward to formally meeting with you and maybe speaking to you about the direction of the column. I believe you have my contact Best, Charles Easley

Posted by Charles Easley on 02/11/2013 at 11:18 AM

The story of Bayard Rustin is one of those stories African Americans, in writing claiming the power to write our own history, need to know, claim and tell. We've had many gay and lesbian trailblazers who've risked it all with even less sanctuary than was our usual lot. This whitewashing of history has to stop.

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Posted by Emiene Wright on 02/12/2013 at 12:41 PM
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