Patricia Nell Warren

Black History Month: Bayard Rustin

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | February 18, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Bayard Rustin, black civil rights movement, Black History Month, Gandhi, gay rights movement, India independence, labor movement, Martin Luther King Jr., pacifist movement, Quakers, South African independence

Barack Obama's election as America's first black President is a good time for refreshing our memory on LGBT figures 377px-BayardRustinAug1963-LibraryOfCongress.jpgin the black civil-rights movement. Bayard Rustin -- that brilliant, charismatic, passionately courageous man who was Dr. Martin Luther King's chief strategist -- is an obvious choice.

The word "activist" rolls off our tongues easily today. But in 1920s and 1930s America, taking a stand on human-rights issues automatically made you a target for the FBI. You were pegged as a "communist" or "socialist agitator" -- terms that were used as deadly weapons against anybody who tried to challenge the status quo.

Bayard's stirring story after the jump.

Powerful Family History

In 1912, Bayard was born into a prominent family of color in West Chester, PA.

His grandmother Julia, helped raise him. She was part Delaware Indian, and her black ancestors included freedom-minded pacifist Quakers. Founded in England in the 1600s, the Quaker religion had fled Anglican persecution for greater freedom in the American colonies, notably Pennsylvania. Before the Civil War, abolitionist Friends had helped organize and run the "underground railroad" that enabled escaped slaves to get out of the South.

Julia's powerful example -- her pacifist spirituality, and her community activism (she was a charter member of the NAACP when it was founded in 1910) -- sank deep with Rustin. By the time he entered high school in 1929, Bayard was defying local Jim Crow regulations and encouraging other black classmates to do it. Before graduation in 1933, he had already been arrested for the first time, because he sat in the white section of the movie theater.

When he entered higher education at Wilberforce, a black college in Ohio, Bayard had already had his first sexual experiences with other boys. He knew that he was gay.

"I never felt any guilt," he said later. Indeed, he was active in cruising for one-time experiences. But this was something that had to be kept hidden at all costs.

A Role Model in India

In college, Rustin first started hearing about Mohandas Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer who was emerging as a freedom leader, first against apartheid in South Africa, then against British colonial rule in his native India. Freedom-bent American blacks were thrilled to read about the exploits of this brown-skinned Hindu who was fighting for people of color on the other side of the world. By the end of World War II, Gandhi's organizing had united millions of peaceful but determined Hindus and Muslims. The British saw the writing on the wall, and granted India her independence without a fight.

In 1937, Rustin settled in New York City and started working in the pacifist and labor movements. His lean six-foot frame, elegant suits and powerful tenor voice were impressive at the speakers' podium. He was also tough as nails, and survived a number of brutal beatings by police. In 1944, federal authorities sentenced him to three years for refusing to serve in uniform during World War II. In 1947, after arrest during a Freedom ride, Rustin did 30 days in a North Carolina chain gang. The experience was so horrific that the exposé he wrote stirred up a public outcry, and resulted in the abolition of chain gangs in North Carolina.

In the late 1940s, his prison experience prompted Rustin to start speaking out about the cruelty and injustice that faced American homosexuals. Making no secret of his sexual orientation, he was having his first real relationship with a young white man, Davis Platt. In 1947, the two settled down on 124th Street in New York City. Their place became a center for artists, writers and activists.

"Bayard was fun to be with," said Platt later. But the relationship broke up after a year.

Marching on Washington D.C.

By the 1960s, Rustin was working with emerging black leader Reverend Martin Luther King. Rustin had been pondering Gandhi's strategies, with their foundation in Hindu spirituality. How could those strategies be applied in the U.S. in a way that could draw support from liberal Christian spirituality, given the fact that ultraconservative white Christians usually supported Jim Crow? It was during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that Rustin first counseled Dr. King on Gandhi-style activism.

By 1963, he was helping King to organize that historic March on Washington that kicked the black civil-rights movement into higher gear.

Though Rustin was a compelling speaker and could have been a leader in his own right, he stayed behind the scenes. His sexual orientation had gotten negative public attention after a 1953 California arrest for "indecency." Puritanical church people started pressuring King to get rid of the "commie queer."

"After that," comments historian E. P. Lovejoy at Epinions, "Rustin refrained voluntarily from speaking out about oppression of homosexuals because he wanted to protect the racial civil rights movement into which he had invested so much....Rustin also faced enemies within the movement, chief among them Adam Clayton Powell, the U.S. Representative from Harlem. Powell sought to gain for himself a more influential position by denigrating Rustin. He threatened to leak fabricated allegations of a sexual affair between Rustin and King." King gave in, and distanced himself somewhat from Rustin.

Ironically, Rustin was not the only homosexual in King's organization. Cherokee medicine woman Earth Thunder recalls being one of the young workers in that organization in the late 1960s. As a Native American, she felt that King's "I have a dream" was meant for all people of color. Earth Thunder told me: "I can recollect some joyful times with Bayard in a private gathering in Harlem, probably 1968. We were resting between pushes to get ready for the August Democratic explosion. But for most of the movement, I knew little of any of the gay friends pushing the envelope." Meaning that they were keeping a low profile like Rustin did.

After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Rustin traveled widely and counseled native freedom-fighting leaders in other countries -- Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Haiti, El Salvador, Grenada. He worked for the freedom of Soviet Jews. In short, he became something like a freedom ambassador without portfolio.

Finally a Gay Activist

In 1977, Rustin settled into his happiest and most enduring relationship, with a younger man named Walter Naegle. He was still lean and handsome, but with hair going strikingly white. The two settled in New York City's Chelsea district.

By then, anti-gay feeling in the U.S. had softened just enough that Rustin felt he could work openly for the LGBT cause without hurting other causes. During a battle to pass gay-friendly legislation in New York City, he testified at hearings and made a statement that sounds prophetic today, saying that homosexuality is "central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights."

Sadly, many in the gay community were dismissing Rustin's efforts and his towering achievements in other movements, considering him a Johnny-come-lately. One commentator described him as "gay, activist but sadly, not a gay activist."

In 1987, shortly after another trip abroad, Rustin took ill and died. He had just turned 75. Today Walter Naegle continues to tend the flame of his partner's achievements as executor and archivist for the Bayard Rustin estate.

For some years, Rustin was undeservedly forgotten by many in the LGBT movement. Yet today our younger activists are rediscovering Rustin, and rightfully so. A student activist that I know in Los Angeles told me, "It's awesome that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King's head guy."

Biographer John D'Emilio sums up Rustin's life in a few deft words. He says, "Rustin displayed courage under circumstances that are terrifying to contemplate. His life reminds us that the most important stories from the past are often those that have been forgotten and that from obscure origins can emerge individuals with the power to change the world."


Thanks to Walter Naegle for his gracious help and helpful information. Also thanks to producer-director Bennett Singer for providing me with a DVD of Brother Outsider, and giving permission for reproduction of the image from the film that accompanies this article.

A longer version of this piece, focusing on Rustin as a high-school football star, and the way that sports jump-started his activism, is published at

Further reading:

Web page:

Bayard Rustin Fund


Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, by John D'Emilio (University of Chicago Free Press, 2003).

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin,
edited by Devon W. Cabardo and Donald Weise (Cleis Press, 2003).

We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin, by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek Books, 2007)

Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen, by Jervis Anderson (University of California Press, 1998).


Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.
Produced and directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy D. Kates. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, broadcast on PBS' P.O.V. series and LOGO cable network. To date the film has won 20 film festival awards.

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Anthony in Nashville | February 18, 2009 12:27 PM

Thanks for this article! As a black gay man I have increasingly looked to Rustin for inspiration as a proud man willing to speak out about injustice in all its forms. So many people are still unaware of his importance.

I have tried ordering Brother Outsider from different stores, it appears you can only get it from the Rustin site. lists it, but doesn't have the DVD available. So yes, your best bet is to order it through the link to the Rustin website, which is above.

steve tabarez | February 18, 2009 5:29 PM

A wonderful, inspiring piece. Thank you for that. It's good that we remember those who came before us, so to see how much farther we need to go. So many angles to ponder, so many lessons to learn, and so much to appreciate about a man who truly suffered, yet never gave up.

Thank you, Patricia, for this telling of the Bayard Rustin story. Although I became aware of him quite some time ago, his story needs to be repeated again and again, until he is given his proper place in civil rights history.

Another black gay figure I would like to mention here is the composer-muscian Billy Strayhorn. My local PBS station just re-broadcast the Independent Lens installment which is a two-hour biography of his life. I was surprised to learn that Strayhorn, too, had had several Harlem meetings with Martin Luther King Jr. during which they discussed civil rights strategy. Although Strayhorn wasn't an activist quite to the extent that Rustin was, he was a famous African-American highly active and visible in the civil rights movement similar to the way as were Ozzie and Ruby Dee Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Mahalia Jackson.

There seems to be a pattern here: black gay people being edited out of the American Civil Rights saga. This has to stop, and we are the only ones who can stop it. Patricia, thanks again for your help.

Thanks for mentioning Billy Strayhorn. I googled around and found a nice piece about him on Independent Lens, mentioning both his music and civil-rights career.

In a day or two, I'm going to do a post encouraging people to get curious and google around and find some good BHM coverage in other publications out there. It's amazing what you turn up if you search under "black gay musicians" or "black lesbian writers." I found some people that I didn't know about.

Anyway, I'm adding Strayhorn to the little list of links in this upcoming post.

Mr. Rustin has long been a hero of mine. Thanks for bringing him up.

Great job. Thanks for the information. I didn't know the gay community downplayed his importance and rejected him. Sad.
Here is my OpEd I wrote last week. Feel free to criticize.

Civil Rights - Coming of Age ?
by Charles Merrill

When President Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia grow up, I hope they will not have a difficult time if one or both want to marry a person of the same sex.. Most certainly they would have the approval and encouragement from their intelligent and educated loving parents as well as the progressive Quaker religion which runs the private school they now attend in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the majority of the black religions in America think homosexuality is sinful.

Quaker African American Bayard Rustin was one of the most important leaders of the American civil rights movement but his name is seldom mentioned. During his life, he received comparatively little press or media attention, and others' names were usually much more readily associated with the movement than his was. Rustin's homosexuality probably meant that the importance of his contribution to the civil rights and peace movements would never be acknowledged. .

Rustin helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and he was also involved in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In August of 1963 he served as the coordinator of the March on Washington, an event attended by 200,000 people. Rustin was arrested 23 times. He continued to believe that racial equality should be pursued through nonviolent means. His being gay gave him a further sense of empathy and compassion for the human condition of oppression and suffering.. If alive today, he would be fighting to amend the Civil Rights Amendment to the Constitution of 1964 to include sexual orientation..

The black church and the 60’s civil rights movement is notorious for being against homosexuality, some claim it is sinful and relates to only privileged white folks. Most claim that black folks don‘t do that kind of activity. Black gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people are ignored for public office in politics, most notably without the backing of the Democratic National Convention. A different story for gay white wonder bread.

There have been several white gay and lesbians appointed to President Obama’s administration thus far. The list includes one Hispanic, but no out gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender African Americans..

The list includes:Brian Bond, who formerly headed the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and also worked for the Democratic National Committee, will become the deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. That office is a politically sensitive operation that oversees the administration's relationship with a wide variety of constituencies, including the LGBT community. Bond is expected to be the key White House go-to guy on gay issues.

Dave Noble, who served as director of LGBT voter mobilization in the Obama campaign, is widely reported to be the president's choice for White House liaison to NASA. Prior to joining the Obama campaign, Noble led the Capitol Hill lobbying efforts for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and he has also worked for the National Stonewall Democrats.

Karine Jean-Pierre, who was a regional political director in the Obama campaign, has been tapped to be the White House liaison to the Labor Department. Jean-Pierre joined the campaign after serving as the Washington press secretary for Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn-Queens Democrat now running for mayor.

Vice President Joe Biden's director of administration will be Moe Vela, a Denver Civil Service commissioner who advised Vice President Al Gore on Hispanic Affairs from 1996 until 2000.

David Media, who was deputy CEO of the 2004 Democratic National Convention and more recently worked at the US Global Leadership Campaign, which aims to increase US investments in oversees development and diplomacy, will serve as First Lady Michelle Obama's deputy chief of staff.

Anthony Bernal, who did scheduling and advance work for Clinton and Gore, will be director of scheduling for Dr. Jill Biden, the vice president's wife.

Ambassador Mark Dybul, the Bush administration's global AIDS coordinator, responsible for overseeing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, will be staying in that post under Obama.

A frequent and popular guest on FOX news is Bishop Harry R. Jackson, minister of Hope Christian Church in Washington D.C. He has said that African Americans are spiritually superior to white Christians, in that their faith is more "integrated" into their everyday life. But there is one area, Jackson says, where good black and white Christians are in perfect accord: Their shared condemnation of homosexuality. "It's going to cost black America if we don't stand [with white anti-gay Christians] against this," The majority of black preachers agree with Bishop Jackson. Gay friendly Rev. Al Sharpton is the exception.

No one can or should predict the sexual orientation of Sasha and Malia unless they want the First Lady hitting you over the head with a doll. But, hopefully by the time they grow into adulthood sexual orientation will be just as important in the U.S. Constitution as a civil right as any other.

You make some good points in your op-ed, Charles.

Re community obliviousness to Rustin: In the late 1970s, when Rustin had settled in Manhattan with Walter Naegle, I was out by then, and spent a lot of time in the city (I was living in Westchester County, just north of NYC). That period saw the growth of activist organizations like GAA and major national media like The Advocate. Any LGBT New Yorker who was out and about during that period heard about this activist and that activist.

But the gay movement was overwhelmingly "white" in those days. So Bayard Rustin was seldom mentioned, even though he was right there in the city.

steve tabarez | February 19, 2009 1:47 PM

Good piece Charles. Also interesting is to note Obama's good friend, Gov. Patrick Deval and his lesbian daughter. Don't kno if Obama distanced himself from her and our cause, if Patrick didn't want it to be an issue, or if the daughter didn't want the exposure, but I do kno many of my black LGBTQ friends were hoping that that tie would produce another lesbian spokesperson of color, and propel Obama to act on our issues. Didnt happen.

Great article Patricia. I too would have liked to have met Bayard.