Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most seminal moments in American history: The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought together more than 200,000 people for one of the largest rallies ever in this nation. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years after that day, the man who organized that march is finally receiving some of the recognition that he has long deserved.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama posthumously named Bayard Rustin as one of the newest recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rustin organized the logistics—from buses and lunches to child care and celebrity speakers—and was the top lieutenant to King and labor leader A. Phillip Randolph. Rustin is generally credited with mentoring King and helping to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a ''master strategist of social change” wrote historian John D'Emilio in the 2003 biography Lost Prophet.
“Rustin was a logistical genius,” Earl D. Fowlkes, Jr. told EBONY. Fowlkes is President/CEO of the Center for Black Equity and the newly-elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee's LGBT Caucus. “He was an advocate for earth-moving change through peaceful action and conscience-raising.”
“Bayard Rustin was the unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement,” National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director Sharon Lettman-Hicks told EBONY.com. NBJC is the nation’s leading civil rights group for the Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “Rustin was unapologetically Black and unapologetically gay—and for a significant period of history he was erased.”
“I never read about Rustin in high school and did not hear his name until years later when I was coming out as a young Black lesbian,” adds Mandy Carter, the veteran social justice activist who co-founded the NBJC. Carter lead the organization's 2013 Bayard Rustin Commemoration Project, which culminated on Monday evening with an all-star tribute at Washington DC’s Lincoln Theater that was keynoted by Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez and featured Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart and others.
Randolph and Rustin initially planned a “March on Washington” some two decades earlier in 1941. But the “threat to stage a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt to…issue an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination throughout defense industries,” wrote David Garrow at the New York Times in his review of William P. Jones’ The March on Washington.
“Rustin convinced King of the need for the march in 1963,” Carter told EBONY.com. “There was incredible police violence against civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham that year. Medgar Evers was also assassinated. This forced the Kennedy Administration to start action on civil and voting rights bills.”
Bayard Taylor Rustin was born on March 17, 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was raised a Quaker—he later became a communist, socialist and pacifist—and was jailed for refusing to fight in World War Two. Rustin helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and led the first “Freedom Rides” in the 1940s.
“Rustin was openly gay at that time in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He made no secret of the fact that he loved other men,” Reverend MacArthur Flournoy, director of Faith Partnership and Mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign, told EBONY.com. “This was unprecedented for a Black man at that time.”
Flournoy and NBJC’s Mandy Carter will be among the featured panelists at "The Life and Legacy of Bayard Rustin,” an event tonight at HRC’s Washington headquarters. The discussion is sponsored by the Center for Black Equity and will be moderated by Earl Fowlkes.
Rustin’s legacy has been previously explored in the excellent documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. The film often utilizes the FBI's chilling and extensive surveillance records of Rustin. This includes a 1953 arrest for “lewd vagrancy” in Pasadena, California, where police caught Rustin performing a sex act in the backseat of a car. His subsequent arrest and 60-day prison sentence was “an albatross around his neck” notes Mandy Carter, and often exploited by Whites opposed to civil rights and Black leaders who were jealous of MLK's prominence.
"I am not at all surprised that it has taken this long for Rustin to be properly recognized,” New York City-based author and activist Darnell L. Moore told EBONY.com. “Rustin lived and worked as a Black homosexual in a Black straight male-dominated space. His contributions went unrecognized in the same way that [many] women's contributions have been rendered invisible."
“Black civil rights leaders essentially told him, ‘We will take your skills and gifts—but for the sake of the movement we have to be quiet about who you are,’” adds Carter. “It’s the same story today—there is a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ across parts of the Black community. This makes you wonder how many other Bayard Rustin were silenced in the Movement? But thankfully this is changing.”