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Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 - August 24, 1987) was an African-American civil rights activist, important largely behind the scenes in the US civil rights movements of the 1960s and earlier. He counseled Martin Luther King, Jr. on the techniques of nonviolent resistance.

Rustin was gay. This was used against him later in his career, a fact largely responsible for his relative obscurity.

Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was raised by his maternal grandparents. For the first ten years of his life, Rustin believed that his birth mother, who had borne him out of wedlock when she was seventeen, was his sister. Rustin’s grandmother, Julia, was a Quaker, though she attended her husband’s A.M.E. Church. She was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were frequent guests in the Rustin home. With these influences in his early life, Rustin campaigned against racially discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws in his youth.

In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce University, but left in 1936 before taking his final exams. He also attended Cheyney State Teachers College , now called Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. In 1937, Rustin moved to Harlem and began studying at City College of New York. There, he became involved in efforts to free the “Scottsboro Boys[?]”, nine African-American men who had been accused falsely of raping two White women. He also became a member of the Young Communist League at this time.

The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) was originally a strong supporter of the US civil rights movement, but in 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin ordered the CPUSA to abandon civil rights and focus on U.S. involvement in World War II. Disillusioned by this betrayal, Rustin began working with anti-Communist socialists such as A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).

The three of them proposed a March on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces, but the march was cancelled after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act), which banned discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus. Rustin also went to California to protect the property of Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps. Impressed with Rustin’s organizational skills, Muste appointed him as FOR’s secretary for student and general affairs.

In 1942, Rustin and two other members of FOR, George Houser[?] and James Farmer[?], formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was conceived as a pacifist organization based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau and modeled after Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent resistance against British rule in India. As pacifists, Rustin, Houser, and other members of FOR and CORE were arrested for violating the Selective Service Act. From 1944 to 1946, Rustin was imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, where he organized protests against segregated dining facilities. During his incarceration, Rustin also organized FOR’s Free India Committee. After his release from prison, he was frequently arrested for protesting against British rule in India and Africa.

Rustin and Houser organized the Journey of Reconciliation[?] in 1947. This was the first of the “Freedom Rides” to test the Supreme Court of the United States’s ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. CORE’s Gandhian tactics were opposed strenuously by the NAACP, and participants in the Journey of Reconciliation were arrested several times. Rustin served thirty days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation Jim Crow laws.

Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin met with leaders of the Ghanaian and Nigerian independence movements and, 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 public indecency. This was the first time that his homosexuality had come to public attention. He was not only convicted, but he remained candid about his sexuality, which was still criminalized throughout the United States. After his conviction, he was fired from FOR, though he became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League.

Rustin took leave from the War Resisters League in 1956 to advise Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., about Gandhian tactics as King organized the public transportation boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The following year, Rustin and King began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference[?] (SCLC). Many African-American leaders were concerned that Rustin’s open homosexuality and youthful Communism would undermine the civil rights movement. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.[?] 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 homosexuality and his conviction was a matter of public record, it had not been discussed widely outside the civil rights leadership.

When, in 1963, Rustin and King organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Senator Strom Thurmond railed against Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual” and produced an FBI photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing to allege a homosexual relationship between the two. Both men denied the allegation of an affair, but despite King’s support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins[?] did not allow Rustin to receive any public recognition for his role in planning the march.

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. Rustin was an early supporter of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy, but as the war escalated and began to supersede Democratic programs for racial reconciliation and labor reform, Rustin returned to his pacifist roots. Still, he was seen as a “sell-out” by the burgeoning Black Power movement, whose identity politics he rejected.

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’s Gay Rights Bill and, in 1986, claimed that the gay and lesbian community had become the “barometer” of human rights because it is “the community which is most easily mistreated”. He also urged gay and lesbian organizations to stand up for all minorities.

Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. He is survived by his partner of ten years, Walter Naegle, who is his executor and chief archivist.

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