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 Outsports.com.
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.