November 19, 2018

A New Civil Rights Generation: Finally Celebrating a Black and Openly Gay Activist

Not too long ago I wrote a blog on two of my greatest role models, Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987)

Last year marked the 100th year since the birth of an openly gay African American man, who was a master strategist and tireless activist, and has been called the “lost prophet” and “invisible man” of the civil rights movement.  He was known by some as ''Mr. March-on-Washington,'' for his work as the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which to this day is one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the U.S.  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.  By the late 1950s, Rustin had emerged as a key adviser to King.

As one of the most prolific leaders in the civil rights movement, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and removed from important leadership positions, mostly because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.  Rustin was an object of suspicion to some leaders of the civil rights movement. Rivals and adversaries capitalized on the stigma and shame attached to homosexuality, making Rustin and fellow leaders vulnerable to attack.  A rival black leader of King’s, Adam Clayton Powell, the minister-congressman from Harlem, threatened to float a lie that King was one of Rustin’s lovers if King didn’t exile him from his inner circle.  For the sake of the movement, Rustin offered King his resignation, and in a panic, King accepted it and reluctantly pushed him away. 

During the beginning stages of strategizing the March on Washington, according to Congressmen John Lewis, “While some felt that there was nobody better then Rustin to lead the march on Washington, Roy Wilkins, as head of the NAACP felt that because Rustin was gay, he couldn’t be the person because it was embarrassing to the march, and it was embarrassing to the movement.”  

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.  Attended by some 250,000 people, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation's capital, and one of the first to have extensive television coverage.  The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will be forever known as the day that confirmed the success of the civil rights movement and launched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into being one of the most influential civil rights leaders in time.

                                    Coming to Light

Since times are changing, Rustin is finally starting to get the attention he should have received for his huge contribution to the civil rights movement.  At this year's 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama decided to award Rustin posthumously with the Presidential Medal for Freedom, the highest civilian honor. “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights,” the White House said of the President's decision to honor Rustin this year.  Rustin is also about to be inducted into the US Labor Departments Hall of honor. 

The mission of the civil rights movement was to transform a society into one that recognizes the humanity in others, and where people are treated with dignity.  It is unfortunate how a large population of people didn't always stand up for the dignity of someone who was a huge part of the heart and soul of the movement.  Considering it was a fiercely homophobic era, I can understand why civil rights leaders were afraid of the impact that Rustin’s sexuality would have on the movement.  Rustin's sexual orientation definitlley made the movement vulnerable to attack by opposing leaders.  In a way the civil rights leaders went into the closet when they encouraged Rustin to step into the shadows and out of national attention. 

What happened with Rustin is a major lesson that needs to be looked at.  It makes me think about how wrestling with shame isn’t exclusive, and that there are all sorts of issues we may keep in the closet.  It also makes me think about the importance of being congruent with the values you stand for, and that fighting for human dignity cannot be exclusive.

It is wonderful seeing how our nation and the new generation of civil rights activists are now giving Mr. Bayard Rustin the recognition he deserves.


To watch an excellent documentary about Rustin see“>{HERE}