Unsung Hero of Two Freedom Movements
by Morgan Dyer
Do you know what this month is? It’s Black History Month! This Black History Month, I want to throw a spotlight on one of my heroes, Bayard Rustin.
Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Despite being a cornerstone of the American Civil Rights Movement, he was silenced and exiled from the spotlight because he was an openly gay man. Historian John D’Emilio called Rustin the “lost prophet” of the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin organized Freedom Rides and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a strong proponent of nonviolent protest.
After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assasination, Rustin took over as leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, but faced opposition by movement leadership which eventually caused him to withdraw. He became the head of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO – the largest federation of unions in the United States). He helped to promote the integration of formerly all-White unions and encouraged unionization of African American worker communities. He served on humanitarian missions up until his death in 1987.
Because of his sexuality, he often had to work behind the scenes in social movements, serving as an advisor to leaders within the Civil Rights and Workers Rights Movements. On november 20th, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was presented to his lifelong partner, Walter Naegle.
Rustin was a pioneer in the movement to desegregate interstate bus travel. In 1942, he boarded a bus in Louisville bound to Nashville. According to his account, he made the decision to be arrested by sitting in the second row when a small white child reached out to play with his necktie. The mother reportedly grabbed the child’s hand and hurled a racial slur at him, and Rustin later said he felt that he owed it to that child who was innocent to show him and the other people on the bus that he didn’t accept that and that African American people didn’t want to be treated that way. He also said that because of this, he decided to come out of the closet, because in being quiet about his homosexuality, he was part of the problem and complicit in the effort of a homophobic culture to destroy him.
I have a lot of admiration and respect for Bayard Rustin. In fighting for his own freedoms, he gave us some of the freedoms that we enjoy today. Often we collectively misremember LGBT history with White bodies, but nothing could be further from the truth. Black history is LGBT history and vice versa. We owe so much to each other for fighting for our collective freedoms, and we can start to repay that debt by remembering history in an honest and inclusive way. We stand on the shoulders of activists and visionaries like Bayard Rustin who gave us the world we live in today.