West Chester, Pennsylvania
March 17, 1912
Bayard Rustin was an American civil rights activist, whose contribution to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950′s and 1960′s was of great importance. As a strategist he was crucial to the organization of the March on Washington and his desire for non-violent protest was one that saw him work closely with Martin Luther King. As an openly gay man in a time when homosexuality was criminalized, Rustin’s effectiveness was somewhat limited, as people’s prejudices got the better of their judgment.
Rustin’s early life with his grandmother Julia, a staunch pacifist, gave him a solid grounding in the politics of peace. As a member of the NAACP, Julia Rustin was frequently entertaining prominent leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois. As a result of this influence on his early years, Bayard Rustin began his activism campaigning against the Jim Crow laws.
His school career is notable for the organizations he became active in, such as the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Young Communist League.
His major affiliations came with organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was particularly important to Rustin as it espoused the peaceful resistance that later became key to his methods. His desire for freedom and equality stretched across the globe and was certainly not limited to racial issues in America; he was a frequent campaigner against British colonial rule in Africa and India, for which he was arrested several times. Because of the influence of his grandmother, Rustin was particularly interested in the Ghandian methods of peaceful protest, and even managed to travel to India to learn more about them.
Rustin was frequently in trouble with the law and spent time serving on a chain gang for violating Jim Crow laws in North Carolina, as well as 60 days in a penitentiary in California for “homosexual activity”. Despite early success and recognition, his homosexuality meant that he was somewhat ostracized by his peers to the point where he was fired from FOR, and was denied any public credit for his role in organizing the March on Washington. To make matters worse, Storm Thurmond publicly labeled Rustin as a “communist, draft dodger, and homosexual” as a result of of his activist past.
Despite these setbacks, Rustin eventually served on the board of trustees for the University of Notre Dame, and began extensive work on behalf of the Gay Rights movement, perhaps most notably in New York in 1986 where he declared:”The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it’s the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated.”
Rustin died on August 24th, 1987.