Despite his incredible influence on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Bayard Rustin lived in the shadows. An openly gay man, he’d been arrested for engaging in public homosexuality, and, before his activist involvement, had identified as a member of the Communist Party — both of which offended the senses of society at the time and even fellow pacifists.
Still, without Rustin, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 would not have been what it was. According to PBS:
The march itself, of course, turned out to be a tremendous success, including those glorious moments when the official estimate of 200,000 was announced (actually, there was as many as 300,000, says Life.com); when Marian and Mahalia sang; when Mrs. Medgar Evers paid tribute to “Negro Women Freedom Fighters”; when John Lewis and Dr. King spoke; and when Bayard Rustin read the march’s demands. And perhaps the most poignant statement of the power of nonviolence was that there were only four arrests, Taylor Branch writes in The King Years, all of them of white people.
Afterward, the leaders of the Big Six [civil rights organizations: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, the National Urban League, the NAACP and Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters] met with President Kennedy at the White House. Rustin remained out of sight, though he and Randolph did make it onto the cover of Life Sept. 6. Eight days later, four young girls went to their deaths in the Birmingham church bombing; in November, President Kennedy was gunned down, leaving President Lyndon Johnson to shuttle the Civil Rights Act through Congress, signing it in 1964, the same year Dr. King received the Nobel Prize, with Rustin planning the logistics of his trip to Oslo. It was, to say the least, history at its most dramatic, shocking — and unpredictable — at every turn.
Born March 17, 1912, Rustin had humble beginnings. He never knew his father and grew up believing his 16-year-old mother was his sister while his Quaker grandparents raised him as their own. He came out to his grandmother when he was a teenager, and she reportedly responded by saying, “I suppose that’s what you need to do.”
According to Biography, Rustin approach to activism combined “the pacifism of the Quaker religion, the non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph.” He taught the non-violent principles of Ghandi to Dr. Martin Luther King, who would employ them in the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1956, and continue to do so throughout his activist career.
Prior to the March on Washington, Rustin helped coordinate a march against nuclear weapons in England in 1958, in which 10,000 protesters gathered. He continued to demonstrate strong organizational and leadership skills, and his fearless approach meant he no stranger to arrests. According to Biography:
Rustin was punished several times for his beliefs. During [World War II], he was jailed for two years when he refused to register for the draft. When he took part in protests against the segregated public transit system in 1947, he was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks. In 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge for publicly engaging in homosexual activity and was sent to jail for 60 days; however, he continued to live as an openly gay man.
After the March on Washington, Rustin continued to fight for economic justice at home while also directing his attention internationally, promoting free elections in Central America and Africa. Later, he worked to put the AIDS crisis on the radar of the NAACP.
Rustin died of a ruptured appendix in New York City on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013.