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Celebrating Black History Month: Bayard Rustin

Apicha Community Health Center Feb 04, 2020  

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In recognizing Black History Month, Apicha CHC will be spotlighting Black LGBTQ+ pioneers in their own right and their contribution to bettering our society. These people are fundamental to our histories, relentless in their efforts to open doors that were firmly closed. We will not let these people be erased from history.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. As a Black gay man, Rustin experienced not only racism during his life, but homophobia as well. Early in his life, Rustin practiced Quakerism and studying Ghandi's philosophies of pacifism. He served as one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest advisors and confidants. Despite discrimination and bigotry, Rustin dedicated much of his life to fighting for the rights of others.

The personal is political

Born in 1912, Bayard Rustin grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Inherited through his grandparents practice, he began practicing Quakerism at an early age and developing an interest in pacifism and practices of non-violent resistance(PBS). 

When Bayard moved to NYC to attend City College in 1937, he was actively engaged in protesting racial segregation, already becoming a known name as a Civil Rights activist. In 1944, Rustin was touring the country speaking out against racial discrimination and failed to appear before his draft board and refused to accept the "alternative service" deal the court offered him. He was given a two-year sentence in prison (PBS).

Rustin never tried to hide his homosexuality as he was engaging in powerful and radical anti-racism and civil rights activism. In 1953, Rustin was arrested for 'homosexual acts,' which as his long-term partner Walter Naegle recounts, led him to be a little more discreet about who he was sleeping with, but he never denied his homosexuality in his personal or public life (OUT). 

Being a gay Black political activist and radical made Bayard especially prone to discrimination, even within the organizations he was doing coalition building during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. His most well-known partners were also white men, which added even more stigmatization of being gay. But as his legacy shows, it never once prevented him from showing up ready to work and willing to confront the many layers of his identity that people discriminated against (OUT). 

Working with Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1956, Rustin began acting as a fundamental actor in Martin Luther King Jr.'s cohort, starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But, it was not long before people tried to fray their relationship, largely with vicious threats to accuse them of being gay lovers. King was given threats that suggested if he did not abandon Rustin, there would be consequential accusations (PBS). 

"At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him," Rustin said to the Blade in an interview.

It was a painful moment for Rustin and King, but it did not prevent Rustin from working alongside King in the future, most notably in organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This time in Rustin's life was powerful, and his work came to fruition in the life-changing form of being the main organizer of the March on Washington. After King was murdered, Rustin was still engaged with various organizations and civil rights efforts, but definitely retreated into his private life with Naegle.  

Bayard died in August of 1987 at the age of seventy-five, long before he and Naegle could legally marry. Following Bayard’s passing, Naegle has been working with a team within the Bayard Foundation to keep his legacy alive, notably by assisting in the 2002 documentary, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin has in many ways been made invisible in many of the stories recounted during the Civil Rights Movement. But he was a force to be reckoned with, contributing immensely to the movement's successes and changing the course of history with his incredible, powerful work. 


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