Religion & Politics

Profiles in Black History: Bayard Rustin

By Sean P. McKelvey   

With February comes Black History Month. While I personally believe that “Black History” is indeed merely American history and am appalled that it seems to only get one out of twelve months to not only be focused on but acknowledged at all, since that’s how it is understood and presented in our cultural lexicon. Here is my (makes me uncomfortable to even say this) contribution. I will be writing a short series of articles, throughout the month that each cover a different leader of the black community. That is what I consider, more obscure or tragically unheard of black leaders, for their considerable and great contributions to the struggle for equality in America.

My first profile is of Bayard Rustin; arguably just as important as MLK in regards to the Civil Rights movement, yet suspiciously absent from history. There is a reason we don’t know Rustin’s name as we know MLK’s or Malcolm X’s. Rustin was an advocate for socialist democracy, and was also openly gay; at a time when just one of those could literally land you in jail. In fact, Rustin had actually been arrested and convicted of “sex perversion,” in Pasadena, CA in 1953 (“sex perversion,” was what California called, even consensual, same-sex relations). He served 60 days in jail for the conviction. This conviction would haunt him throughout his life, and was used by the racist opposition to his causes in an attempt to discredit him and his work. 

Rustin was an incredibly accomplished Civil Rights leader, that operated mainly in the shadows for fear of his sexuality and political affiliations being used to discredit him and distract and detract from his causes. He helped organize and form the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, which was the first of the Freedom Rides. He was arrested and served 22 days on a chain-gang in North Carolina for his participation in that. In 1948, he traveled to India to learn techniques of non-violent civil resistance, directly from the Gandhian movement that basically created those concepts and practices. In 1951 he formed the Committee to Support South African Resistance (which later, became the American Committee on Africa). Rustin would later use what he’d learned in India, to teach Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the ways of non-violent resistance, which as we all know was one of the central tenets of King’s movement.

He served as an unidentified member of the American Friends Service Committee’s task force to write “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence” in 1955. That essay was one of the most influential and commented upon expressions of pacifism in the United States. He remained anonymous for fear that his sexuality would be used by critics to invalidate the essay. Although he was open about his sexuality; he knew it would be something critics and opponents could latch onto and use to their advantage to discredit and demonize him and anything he lent his name to so, he often put the cause ahead of himself. That is incredibly admirable, and makes him a real American hero as far as I’m concerned.

His list of accomplishments is staggering; too long to even list here in all honesty, so I will close out my highlights of that list with what I believe to be his most recognizable and grandest achievement: he was the main organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963. He was credited as the deputy to A. Philip Randolph for the March, but he did most of the planning for it. Other civil rights leaders didn’t want Rustin to be publicly recognized, so the skeletons in his closet that were always dug out and used against him by opposition leaders could not be used to discredit the movement because it was too important. Although, he wasn’t credited as he should have been by his fellow civil rights leaders; he still received credit as a “leader of the march,” because he was featured with A. Philip Randolph on the cover of Life Magazine, and in the story was given the credit he was due.

One last accomplishment I nearly forgot to mention that is crucial to acknowledge: he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor one can receive in our country, and clearly well deserved in his case. I only briefly summarized his life, career and achievements. Rustin did, much, much more over the course of his life; if this story has interested you, definitely look him up and witness the broad legacy of this often forgotten national treasure.

Bayard Rustin is one of many unsung American heroes. There are far too many men and women throughout American history that are either left out of or even erased from the history books, merely because something about who they are could be viewed as problematic. I believe it’s our patriotic duty to give these people the credit and acknowledgement they so deserved yet never widely received when it was certainly due.

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