Black History Month: Celebrating Radical Queer, Bayard Rustin
Rustin and Houser organized the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. This was the first of the Freedom Rides to test the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel (Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia). The NAACP opposed CORE’s Gandhian tactics. Participants in the Journey of Reconciliation were arrested several times. Arrested with Jewish activist Igal Roodenko, Rustin served twenty-two days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation.
In 1948, Rustin traveled to India to learn nonviolence techniques directly from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. The conference had been organized before Gandhi’s assassination earlier that year. Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin met with leaders of Ghana’s and Nigeria’s independence movements.
Rustin and Cleveland Robinson of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 7, 1963
In 1951, he formed the Committee to Support South African Resistance, which later became the American Committee on Africa. In 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California for homosexual activity. Originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of “sex perversion” (as consensual sodomy was officially referred to in California then) and served 60 days in jail. This was the first time that his homosexuality had come to public attention. He had been and remained candid about his sexuality, although homosexuality was still criminalized throughout the United States. After his conviction, he was fired from FOR. He became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League.
Rustin served as an unidentified member of the American Friends Service Committee’s task force to write “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” published in 1955. This was one of the most influential and widely commented upon pacifist essays in the United States. Rustin had wanted to keep his participation quiet, as he believed that his known sexual orientation would be used by critics as an excuse to compromise the 71-page pamphlet when it was published. It analyzed the Cold War and the American response to it and recommended non-violent solutions.
Rustin took leave from the War Resisters League in 1956 to advise Martin Luther King Jr. on Gandhian tactics. King was organizing the public transportation boycott in Montgomery, Alabama known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The following year, Rustin and King began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Many African-American leaders were concerned that Rustin’s sexual orientation and past Communist membership would undermine support for the civil rights movement. U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was a member of the SCLC’s board, forced Rustin’s resignation from the SCLC in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin’s morals charge in Congress. Although Rustin was open about his sexual orientation and his conviction was a matter of public record, the events had not been discussed widely outside the civil rights leadership.
When Rustin and Randolph organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Senator Strom Thurmond railed against Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual.” He produced an FBI photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing, to imply that there was a same-sex relationship between the two. Both men denied the allegation of an affair. Despite King’s support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not want Rustin to receive any public credit for his role in planning the march.
He did become quite well-known. On September 6, 1963 Rustin and Randolph appeared on the cover of Life magazine as “the leaders” of the March. After the March on Washington, Rustin organized the New York City School Boycott. When Rustin was invited to speak at the University of Virginia in 1964, school administrators tried to ban him, out of fear that he would organize another school boycott there.
After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rustin advocated closer ties between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party and its labor activist base. He was the founder of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and a regular columnist for the AFL-CIO newspaper. He wrote an influential article called “From Protest to Politics.” Staughton Lynd, another civil rights activist, responded with an article entitled, “Coalition Politics or Nonviolent Revolution?”
In the early years, Rustin supported President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy. As the war escalated and began to supersede Democratic programs for racial reconciliation and labor reform, Rustin returned to his pacifist roots. The new generation in the burgeoning Black Power movement accused Rustin of being a “sell out”. He rejected its identity politics, although he liked to point out that he wore an early “Afro” style haircut.
During the early 1970s Rustin served on the board of trustees of the University of Notre Dame. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House. He also testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill. In 1986, he gave a speech “The New Niggers Are Gays,” in which he asserted,
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.
Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. An obituary in the New York Times reported, “Looking back at his career, Mr. Rustin, a Quaker, once wrote: ‘The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.’”