As the nation prepares to dedicate the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, Bayard Rustin is finally receiving some of the recognition that he has long deserved. There have been a number of recent tributes to the late civil rights organizer and MLK's top lieutenant.
It was around this point in August 1963, in the sweltering days before the March on Washington, that Eleanor Holmes Norton was waiting for someone to say something really nasty about her boss. She was a march volunteer. The boss was Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief organizer and the man widely viewed as the only civil rights activist capable of pulling off a protest of such unprecedented scale.
And he was gay. Openly gay. That year again? 1963.
"I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for," says Norton, now the District’s nonvoting delegate to Congress. "When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King. King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story."
In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell, the minister-congressman from Harlem, threatened to float a rumor that King was one of Rustin’s lovers if King didn’t exile him from his inner circle. King pushed him away, reluctantly, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"Bayard had a lot of baggage — communist youth member, conscientious objector," says Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life. "But being gay was the one thing that was still unforgivable to a lot of civil rights leaders."
But others never abandoned him, most notably A. Philip Randolph, a dean of the movement and Rustin’s longtime mentor. When the moment came for an unprecedented mass gathering in Washington, Randolph pushed Rustin forward as the logical choice to organize it.
In mid-August, with the march looming over Washington as a growing juggernaut, it was then-Sen. Strom Thurmond who took aim at the man steering it. Speaking on the Senate floor, the South Carolina segregationist, then a Democrat, filled eight pages of the Congressional Record with detailed denunciations of Rustin as a draft-dodging communist homosexual and a convicted “sex pervert.” Thurmond had the entire file of [Rustin's arrest on a morals charge] entered in the record.
Bayard Rustin was openly gay in the 1950s and early 1960s—even in the South. That is an incredible profile in courage.
Read the full profile on Bayard Rustin HERE.
Tributes to Bayard Rustin
Irene Monroe on Rustin and MLKs Dream
Billy Strayhorn Documentary on PBS
Brother Outsider Screenings
Black Museums Should Celebrate Gays
"Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin"