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posted Friday, January 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 02
Remembering Bayard Rustin
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Remembering Bayard Rustin

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

As we look back at another Martin Luther King Day march and rally and remember Dr. King's eloquent calls to social justice, we might also remember Bayard Rustin, one of Dr. King's closest associates and one of the least known.

Like most of King's inner circle, Rustin was African American. Unlike most of them, he was openly Gay - even in the 1950s - and a socialist.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is now so closely associated with King's 'I Have a Dream' speech that most Americans assume King was the principal organizer of the march.

In fact, it was Rustin, working with African American union leader and fellow socialist A. Philip Randolph, who brought more than 300,000 people to D.C. to hear King.

Rustin, Randolph, and white pacifist organizer A. J. Muste first conceived of a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces during World War II.

They cancelled the march after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act), which banned discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies.

They never abandoned the idea, however, and revived it in 1963 to force the reluctant Kennedy administration to support African American civil rights struggles.

The idea of a mass march on the center of the U.S. government was not Rustin's only contribution to the strategy and tactics of the civil rights movement.

Rustin and George Houser of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) organized the first of the 'freedom rides' in 1947. This was the Journey of Reconciliation to test the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia banning racial discrimination in interstate travel.

Rustin served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina on charges arising from the Journey of Reconciliation.

In 1948, Rustin traveled to India to learn nonviolence techniques directly from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. Ghandi, sadly, had been assassinated earlier in the year.

In 1956, Rustin was asked to advise Dr. King on non-violent tactics during the Montgomery bus boycott - King's first major campaign against segregation.

The following year, Rustin and King began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

At that point, Rustin was forced to confront homophobia and red-baiting from within the civil rights movement.

In 1953, Rustin had been arrested in Pasadena, California on charges of vagrancy and 'lewd conduct.' He then pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of 'sex perversion ' - as consensual Gay sex acts were officially called in California at the time - and served 60 days in jail.

This was the first time that his sexual orientation had come to public attention, although he had been and remained open about his sexuality.

Many African American leaders objected to having an openly Gay man in the SCLC leadership. They also feared Rustin's left-wing political history.

Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912. He moved to Harlem in 1932 to study at CCNY. There he got involved in the movement to free the Scottsboro Boys - nine young African American men accused of raping two white women in Alabama.

The Communist Party USA was one of the leading forces in the Scottsboro Boys campaign, and one of the few mainly white organizations to advocate racial equality, so Rustin joined the Young Communist League in 1936.

He became disillusioned with the CPUSA after the Communists put civil rights and union organizing on the back burner during World War II. Rustin then began to work with non-communist socialists like Randolph and Muste.

Nevertheless, he was labeled a 'red' at a time when Americans hated and feared the Soviet Union and communism.

Segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond denounced Rustin as a 'Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual.'

Many African American civil rights leaders echoed these attacks on Rustin.

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was a member of the SCLC's board, forced Rustin to resign from the SCLC in 1960 by threatening to discuss his conviction for 'sex perversion' on the floor of Congress.

While King was supportive, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins prevented Rustin from receiving any public credit whatsoever for his role in planning the 1963 March.

After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rustin began to seek closer ties with the Democratic Party and its labor activist base.

Rustin founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute and wrote a regular column for the AFL-CIO newspaper. He wrote an influential article, From Protest to Politics, urging civil rights activists to turn to electoral campaigns to cement their gains.

This put him at odds with the growing Black Power movement, and many younger activists denounced him as a 'sellout.'

Rustin always rejected Black Power identity politics, although he liked to point out that he always wore an 'Afro' style haircut.

In the 1970s, he became more interested in the Gay Liberation movement.

In 1986, Rustin gave an influential speech titled 'The New Niggers Are Gays.'

'Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change,' he said. '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. He was survived by his partner of 10 years, Walter Naegle, who continues as conservator of Rustin's papers and estate.

Rustin is the subject of the popular documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. It premiered on PBS in 2003.

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