Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

"To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true." -Bayard Rustin


Bayard Rustin stands as perhaps one of the most prolific and well-spoken, albeit unknown, masterminds behind the civil rights movements in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Born in 1910, Rustin was raised by his grandparents. His grandmother was a Quaker and member of the NAACP. Her membership allowed Rustin to interact with many notable leaders of the NAACP, such as William Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. Coupled with his upbringing, these interactions influenced Rustin for the rest of his life [1] .

Throughout his young life, Rustin participated in many protests against segregation and fought for the African-American cause. Though he was involved in efforts to advance the position of unions and other unpopular or marginalized groups, he became heavily involved in the efforts of A. Phillip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., organizing several marches including the famous “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Despite his deep involvement and commitment to the cause, Rustin never received much attention for his efforts. In part, more prominent leaders of the civil right movement intentionally kept him out of the spotlight because he identified as a homosexual.[2]

During his later years Rustin remained an avid advocate and protestor. He participated in rallies against the Vietnam War and began to publicly advocate gay and lesbian rights. He passed away in 1987.

Personal Challenge

By the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Browder vs. Gale that segregation on buses was unconstitutional, Bayard Rustin had already organized many protests and marches against segregation and discrimination in the United States and become one of Martin Luther King’s most trusted advisors. Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin began drawing up plans to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and strategize movements to gain King national attention. Rustin and King developed a very close bond as King grew to become an icon for the civil rights movement. However, Rustin's homosexuality left him open to attacks from politicians and the media.

In some parts of the country, homosexuality was considered a crime. Having been arrested for a homosexual act in 1953, Bayard Rustin carried what was considered a “blemish” on his record. In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell, a U.S. Congressman representing Harlem, delivered a speech in which he stated that “the Civil Rights movement is in danger of being captured by subversives.” In effect, it was a strike against Rustin’s homosexuality. In an attempt to remain one of the more notable black leaders in the Movement, Powell threatened to reveal that King and Rustin were sexually involved. Though the affair was completely unfounded, Rustin submitted his resignation. Surprisingly, King accepted his resignation.[3]

This came as a shock to Rustin. Being that he had been the mastermind behind King’s success, Rustin fully expected King to ignore the threat and continue accepting counsel. How could something that only made up a small part of himself remove him from a cause that he had fought his whole life for? It was disheartening, for it was simply another form of the discrimination Rustin was trying to fight. It was this concept that a person could be identified not by who he is, but what he is, that Rustin was trying to fight. Being shunned by the very people he thought shared this common goal was a struggle that Rustin faced for the next three years as he kept a safe distance from King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Institutional Challenge


In 1963, segregation and discrimination still remained infused in American thought and law. Prominent civil rights activists needed a big idea. Talks between themselves resulted in plans for a large march on Washington. However, no individual had the necessary experience to organize such an event. The civil rights leaders called on the services of Bayard Rustin to spearhead what came to be known as the March on Washington. [4]

Within months, Rustin organized the largest peaceful civil rights protest to that date. He contracted with bus companies, raised volunteers, and raised funds to support the marchers as they traveled to D.C. for their march. However, the threat of his homosexuality still loomed large. At a critical point before the March, Strom Thurmond accused Rustin of being a “sex pervert” on the Senate floor, and managed to display the record of his sex crime for all to see. [5]

Though it was not the first time that an individual had used Rustin’s sexuality against him, the fact that Thurmond did so in such a public manner was a cause for concern. However, Rustin remained dedicated to his cause. “The senator is not interested in me if I was a murderer, a thief, a liar, or a pervert. The senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement,” Rustin said in an interview [6] . Not distracted by his negative publicity, he continued preparations for the March, and gave it the life it needed to become one of the most notable events in United States history.

His previous leave from the movement had taught Rustin that perseverance in the name of a moral cause should not be hampered by those fighting against it, especially by those who sought only to discriminate in a different way. Rather, an individual must seek action if he wishes to see change. Rustin continued to fight for civil rights and used his unique ability to unify individuals from all different backgrounds against a cultural ill.

Cultural Ill


The cultural ill that Bayard Rustin helped combat, but did not defeat, was fear of breaking the status quo. Virtually everything in modern society is governed by the desires of the majority. Thus, the decisions by some are regarded decisions by all. Any form of dissent is seen as a radical idea that must be corrected. This is partially due to the power of the majority, but is also due to the bureaucratization of American government. Attempting to change its laws or convince politicians what is moral or ethical often times is simply an exercise in futility. As a result, these attempts are dismissed as too daunting or the barriers insurmountable. However, Rustin proved that the status quo isn’t always right and that with the right drive and devotion, anything can be done.


Despite being an integral and influential member of the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin received little recognition for his work. Doing so required an incredible amount of humility. As stated before, Rustin served was the mastermind behind many of the most influential civil rights initiatives of his day. Instead of taking public credit for his efforts, Rustin remained the movement’s most quiet yet avid supporter. He stood in the background as others were given credit for his organizational skills and talent for unification. Rustin also demonstrated the virtue of perseverance. At times he was subjected to public humiliation and was even discarded by his friends because of his homosexuality. Yet he continued to fight for the causes he believed in until his death in 1987.


"When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him" -Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin practiced politics from a young age. In the face of a government that actively promoted racism and segregation, Rustin sought to be the voice of the oppressed. Though never an official candidate for political office, he organized and participated in countless non-violent protests that sought to extend equal rights to each citizen regardless of race or sexual orientation. This active practice of politics allowed him to benefit from certain goods internal to politics in general. One such internal good is promoting systems and laws that allow aid in human flourishing. During his life, Rustin worked tirelessly to change laws and institutions that stigmatized African-Americans and homosexuals not only because they were discriminated against, but also because he believed that all humans should benefit from such laws. To bar one individual from one performing an action because of one aspect of his being debases him as a human, and can indeed prevent him from flourishing if this action would have originally allowed him to.

by: Hank Nelson
  1. ^ Walter Neagle. "A Closer Look at Bayard Rustin.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ Gay Man in the Civil Rights Movement.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Gay Man in the Civil Rights Movement
  6. ^