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Bayard Rustin: Master Organizer for Civil Rights, Gay Rights and Human Rights

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

An entire year could be spent profiling the hundreds of civil rights leaders who worked tirelessly for abolition, desegregation, and equal rights under the law. For some, their quests were cut short by assassins. For others, their advocacy waned after specific battles were won. But some found that their battles needed to be fought on multiple fronts. The term “intersectionality” describes the condition where someone finds himself discriminated against not for just one aspect of his identity, but for multiple aspects that intersect. In the White world, Bayard Rustin was denied rights because he was Black. In the Black community, he was denied recognition because he was gay. Bearing a double burden of discrimination, Rustin became an advocate for civil, LGBTQ and human rights. His profile contains important hyperlinks that lead to a deeper dive into the many areas of human rights where Rustin’s legacy lives on. Taking the time to explore these links is highly recommended.

Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 and raised as a Quaker in Pennsylvania. Taught to believe that his parents were Julia and Janifer Rustin, he learned as a teen that they were instead his grandparents. The woman he thought was his sister, Florence, was in fact his mother, who'd had Rustin when she was too young to raise him herself.

Rustin’s grandmother had a profound impact on him. She was an early activist in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune visited the Rustin home during his childhood. When he realized early on that he was a gay man in the 1920s, his grandmother supported him. According to Bayard, she wasn’t concerned so much about him dating men. She was more concerned about the men that he chose. Her response was radical for the time.

Rustin attended Wilberforce University, Cheney State Teachers College and City College of New York. Outgoing and charismatic, he briefly earned a living as a spiritual singer in New York nightclubs. He became interested in the Communist movement but left in the early 1940s when the emphasis turned away from civil rights. This association with the Communist Party would later haunt him.

Rustin was driven by his commitment to Quaker pacifism, Gandhi’s non-violent resistance, and the socialism promoted by the African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph. During WWII, he worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-related hiring. He also became involved in the work of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an international pacifist organization seeking peace, an end to racism, and the protections of labor rights.

Rustin’s pacifism landed him in jail for two years because he refused to register for the draft. He was arrested again in 1947 for protesting North Carolina’s laws regarding segregated public transit. The protest was the first of the Freedom Rides, an effort to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on racial discrimination in interstate travel. Sentenced to work on a chain gain for 22 days, he published his experiences of the brutality in several newspapers, leading to some reforms of the practice. Just as he wouldn’t hide his sexuality, he also cast light on the injustices that impacted every aspect of his world.

After a 1953 arrest and conviction on a morals charge for publically engaging in homosexual activity, Rustin was asked to resign from FOR, despite his contributions. The group, he realized, advocated for peace, labor rights and equality for all people - unless those people were gay.

Bayard continued to hone his organizational skills in the 1950s, coordinating a march in Aldermaston, England where 10,000 protesters demonstrated against nuclear weapons. It was during this time that he began working with a twenty-six year old Martin Luther King, Jr. as an organizer and strategist.

It was Bayard Rustin who helped King truly grasp the power of non-violent resistance. King certainly had an awareness of Gandhi and his philosophy, but at the time, hadn’t embraced the strategy. Rustin gave King an in-depth understanding of Gandhi’s works and how his civil disobedience tactics could be used in the civil rights movement.

When they met, King was aware of Rustin’s sexual orientation, and of Rustin’s 1953 arrest on the morals charge. King recognized Rustin’s knowledge, contacts, and organizational skills—areas where King wasn’t as strong. So Rustin’s sexual orientation was overlooked. King invited him to serve as his advisor, well aware that Rustin’s background would be controversial to other civil rights leaders and a possible vulnerability that could be used by opponents. In a 1960 letter, King told a colleague: “We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle and we are convinced that Bayard’s expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value.”

As King’s special assistant, Rustin assumed a variety of roles, including proofreader, ghostwriter, philosophy teacher, and nonviolence strategist. Although Rustin helped draft much of King’s memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, Rustin wouldn’t allow his name to be credited in the book, telling an associate: “I did not feel that he should bear this kind of burden.”

As the civil rights movement grew, others in King’s inner circle grew to see Rustin as a liability. An excerpt from History’s profile on Rustin explains:

Tensions came to a head, and the worst fears of civil rights activists were realized at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Randolph, King, and Rustin had begun arrangements to march at the Democratic National Convention of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his running mate Lyndon B. Johnson in Los Angeles, protesting the party’s lackluster position on civil rights. In response, Democratic leadership sent black congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stop the march before it happened. And he used Rustin’s sexual orientation as his weapon.

Prior to the convention, Powell sent an intermediary to threaten King, telling him that if they proceeded with the march, he would accuse King of having an affair with Rustin, not only killing the march but also dealing a possibly fatal blow to the movement as a whole.

After consulting with his colleagues and advisors, including his close confidante, advisor and speech writer, Clarence Jones, King decided to distance himself from Rustin.

“It was a personally painful situation for him, I think, because he was disappointed that Dr. King didn’t stand up for him or didn’t have more backbone,” says Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner at the time of his death in 1987. “But, in all fairness to Dr. King and to Bayard, Bayard understood that this was a political move and it was probably better for Dr. King to do what he did politically speaking, in terms of the movement.”

In response to Powell’s threat, Jones fought fire with fire. He told Powell if he went to the media with the fabricated rumor about King, he would litter Harlem, the district that Powell represented, with posters and pictures of all of the women that Powell had slept with. The threat worked, and King proceeded to protest the 1960 Democratic Convention, with Rustin as the sole casualty.

Rustin continued his work with Randolph on civil rights issues, outside of the umbrella of the SCLC. During the years that Rustin wasn’t involved in organizing marches, protests and demonstrations, from 1960 to 1963, the movement saw little progress. King recognized that the movement so many had sacrificed their lives for was losing steam, and slowly reintegrated Rustin during the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. This way, when the March on Washington—a proposal made by Randolph the year prior—would start to take shape, Rustin would already be involved.

Unfortunately for Rustin, detractors from within the movement still opposed his involvement. When it was proposed that Rustin organize a re-envisioned version of the March on Washington that had been canceled 20 years prior, Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, was adamantly opposed.

“I know you’re a Quaker, but that’s not what I’ll have to defend. I’ll have to defend draft dodging. I’ll have to defend promiscuity,” Wilkins argued, according to The Guardian. “The question is never going to be homosexuality, it’s going to be promiscuity, and I can’t defend that. And the fact is that you were a member of the Young Communist League. And I don’t care what you say, I can’t defend that.”

Wilkins had a point. With Rustin at the helm of the March on Washington, they were sure to encounter these questions. But there was no one better suited to make the march the historic event that it was intended to be. So, King and John Lewis, a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at the time, came up with a plan.

Instead of directly involving Rustin, King and Lewis held a caucus to nominate Randolph to lead the march. Randolph, a respected figure in the movement, wouldn’t garner opposition from others.

But King and Lewis also knew that if Randolph became the official director of the march, he would appoint Bayard as his deputy. And Bayard would really be the one who would lead the march.

So, with Randolph as the director and Rustin as his deputy, arrangements for the march were underway. And once again, Rustin’s past and personal life were used to try and stop the movement. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina brought nationwide media attention to Bayard after claiming that the march was being organized by “Communist, draft-dodger and homosexual.”

But it would seem that the impact of what was once the movement’s Achilles’ heel had lost its effectiveness. Not only did King come out in support of Rustin when questioned by the media, all of the leaders within the movement did. Even Wilkins put his reservations aside for the sake of progress.

The march went on to be more successful than anyone could’ve imagined, and marked a turning point for both the country and for Rustin.

“It came at the end of a summer of terror in the South. The assassination of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham fire hoses and dogs. There was a lot of discouragement and frustration,” (Walter) Naegle recalled. “Along came the March on Washington, and I think it really re-energized people, inspired them, lifted up their hope again and renewed the spirit.”

Following the success of the march, Rustin and King would continue to work together for years. However, when Rustin publicly criticized some of King’s plans in 1968, King saw it as a betrayal. Rustin was once again cut from the inner circle. After King’s assassination in 1968, Rustin attempted to return to the planning process but was met with opposition among some of the movement’s leaders.

Rustin continued his activism for human rights, eventually turning his energies to gay rights in the 1980s. In the last years of his life, Rustin gave an interview with the Washington Blade, recalling the duality of being both black and gay and how his experiences reinforced his determination to not hide who he was.

He recalled one moment in particular:

After walking towards the back of a bus in the 1940s during the Jim Crow South, a white child reached up to touch his tie, only to be stopped by their mother. She scolded her child and told them not to touch Rustin or anyone who looked like him, hurling a slur his way in the process.

"If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it's going to end up saying, 'They like it back there, I've never seen anybody protest against it.',"

"It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn't I was a part of the prejudice," he continued. "I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me."

In other words, if it was important for a child to see that a Black man deserved the same respect, rights and front seat on the bus as a White man, Rustin realized it was just as important for that child to see the same was true for a gay man. He also realized that a child would only learn this if those suffering from discrimination spoke up and demanded better. Rustin’s conclusion was that he would never enjoy equality until all aspects of his identity were respected and protected. He continued to fight for human rights until the last years of his life.

Rustin died from a ruptured appendix in 1987 at the age of seventy-five. In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his unyielding career in civil rights activism.


Though not every quote is cited, credit for much of the information in this profile is owed to Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, and History’s biography on Rustin. To learn more about Bayard Rustin, we recommend:

I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life In Letters By Bayard Rustin and Michael G. Long, 2012,

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin By John D’Emilio, 2010 and Civil Rights to Human Rights – The Legacy of Bayard Rustin

To learn more about the Civil Rights Movement, we suggest the following introductory links:

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