Bayard Rustin—the late civil rights organizer and top lieutenant to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—finally receives some of the recognition that he has long deserved. Recently there have been a number of tributes to the often ignored, black gay civil rights leader who organized the 1963 March on Washington. A musical based on Rustin's life debuted in in suburban Chicago. The new Bayard Rustin High School was dedicated in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
One of the most moving tributes is at Outsports. "Bayard Rustin: Offensive Lineman for Freedom" is an essay written by famed novelist Patricia Nell Warren (The Frontrunner) that illustrates how Rustin honed his civil rights activism on the football field.
With his speed and smarts, a movie script might have made him star quarterback of the West Chester Warriors. Instead Bayard chose to play offensive lineman, left tackle... Bayard’s sheer will to use his strength and psychic force for the team’s benefit made him the Warriors’ MVP. Later a teammate remembered what it was like to run up against Pinhead in a scrimmage. He said, “I found it impossible to get by him. Sometimes, after knocking me down on my face, he would gently help me to my feet and quote a line from a poem.”
On that extraordinary team, some strong black-white friendships were born. But off campus, the boys ran into Jim Crow. All the team members were welcome at [Rustin's] house. But one of Bayard’s best friends was a white boy whose parents wouldn’t let their son invite Bayard to their home. The black team members weren’t allowed in the YMCA or certain restaurants. They had to sit in the segregated balcony at the movie theater. For games out of town, the black players couldn’t stay at the same hotel as their white teammates. Some schools even refused to let their all-white teams play West Chester.
The moment came when Bayard had enough. One weekend, just before the Warriors were to play in a neighboring town, he organized his black teammates into a protest squad. They told the coach that, if they couldn’t have the same accommodations as their white teammates, they weren’t going to play. The coach buckled—though he later retaliated by holding back some track awards that the boys had earned.
After that, there was no stopping Rustin. He led his special team of protesters all over West Chester—into stores, restaurants, the YMCA. The boys were usually thrown out, but they kept trying. One of his followers remembered later, “Bayard’s determination was frightening. But we looked up to him as our leader. He was persuasive. He could sell you anything.”
Patricia Nell Warren notes that around this time Bayard Rustin had his first sexual experiences with other young men "and knew that he was gay. 'I never felt any guilt,' he said later. Indeed, he took the offensive in cruising for one-time experiences."
Thankfully we're finally at a stage in history where we can honor Bayard Rustin for all of his contributions—peace activist, civil rights organizer, athlete, writer. As well as celebrate his taking the offensive in his sexuality and becoming an out, proud black gay man.