The morning of Aug. 28, 1963 loomed larger for no civil rights activist than perhaps Bayard Rustin — in only two months he had organized the essence of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Working with A. Phillip Randolph, the head of the first predominantly black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Rustin was predicting about 100,000 attendees the morning of the March.
Not only was his estimate more than doubled when 250,000 people attended that day, but only four arrests were made (despite President John F. Kennedy having more than 4,000 troops ready for violent outbursts), and all those arrested were white.
Medgar Evers paid tribute to “Negro Women Freedom Fighters,” now long-time U.S. Senator from Georgia John Lewis spoke before the crowd, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin concluded the day by reading “What We Demand” — a list of the March’s 10 goals for the President and nation.
A week later, Rustin and Randolph’s faces graced the cover of Life magazine, but in large part Rustin was disenfranchised from the very movement he helped shape and cultivate, and largely for being gay.
It was not until 2013 — 26 years after his death — that President Barack Obama, the first president to openly support LGBTQ rights, awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.
Rustin’s sexuality was a recurring theme in the obstacles he faced as a civil rights activist. In 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge for having sex in a car with two white men.
In 1960, another black leader, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from New York, threatened to tell the press Rustin and King were gay lovers if they did not halt planning a march together outside of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
King folded and distanced himself from Rustin, despite Rustin having helped organize King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1956-57 and introducing him to Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent principles after traveling to India in 1948.
“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,” Rustin wrote after returning to the U.S. from India. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
After Rustin’s departure from the SCLC, and largely on the outs with other prominent southern civil rights leaders, Randolph adopted Rustin as a mentee. Randolph’s approach to civil rights was much more grounded in the intersection between economics and racism.
“What Rustin took away from Randolph, especially, is the recognition that economic issues and racial justice are completely intertwined,” wrote John D’Emilio in his 2003 biography “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.”
In May 1963 the Birmingham Police infamously took fire hoses and attack dogs to protesters under commissioner Bull Conner. The media attention forced President Kennedy to address action surrounding a civil rights bill, and suddenly the idea of a national-scale march seemed more ideal.
“King, who had not shown much interest in the earlier overtures from Rustin and Randolph, began to talk excitedly about a national mobilization, as if the idea were brand new,” D’Emilio wrote.
Rustin and King met in Alabama and agreed on the march focusing on “Jobs and Freedom.” The march would be led and planned around the “Big Six” civil rights groups: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), King’s SCLC, the National Urban League, the NAACP and Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
But Rustin’s role in planning was again called into question because of his sexuality, and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins refused to allow him to be the front man.
“This march is of such importance that we must not put a person of his liabilities at the head,” Wilkins said, according to D’Emilio.
Instead, Randolph took on the role of director and Rustin became his deputy. Just three weeks before the March, Rustin again faced controversy for being gay — this time on the floor of U.S. Senate from Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
Thurmond read from Rustin’s FBI file and publicly denounced him for being gay and an ex-communist (he had briefly aligned with the Communist Youth League in college, hence launching President J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI file on him). The march and its planning persisted, however, and ultimately proved a huge success.
In the years following the march, Rustin continued advocating for civil rights, but his focus eventually shifted toward equal rights for LGBTQ citizens. He worked to bring the AIDS crisis to the NAACP’s attention once stating, “The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”
Rustin passed away on Aug. 24, 1987, just four days before the March on Washington’s 24th anniversary, at the age of 75. He is survived by his partner, Walter Neagle.
“He saw (LGBTQ rights) as another challenge, another barrier that had to be broken down — a larger struggle for human rights and for individual freedoms,” Neagle said.
Sarah is a senior studying political science and philosophy of law. She is also a copyeditor for INK Magazine and a reporter for the Capital News Service wire. Last spring the Virginia Press Association awarded Sarah 3rd place for Public Safety Writing Portfolio and the Hearst Awards recognized her as the 4th place winner for Breaking News Writing. Sarah was invited to the White House in April for the Administration’s innaugural College Reporter Day. She previously worked as an editorial intern for Congressional Quarterly Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher in Washington, D.C., as well as RVAmag and GayRVA.com
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