Rustin at a news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington, August 27, 1963
March 17, 1912|
West Chester, Pennsylvania
|Died||August 24, 1987
Manhattan, New York
|Organization||Fellowship of Reconciliation, Congress of Racial Equality, War Resisters League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Social Democrats, USA (National Chairman), A. Philip Randolph Institute (President), Committee on the Present Danger|
|Movement||Civil Rights Movement, Peace Movement, Socialism, Gay Rights Movement, Neoconservatism|
|Partner(s)||Davis Platt, Walter Naegle|
|Awards||Presidential Medal of Freedom|
|Part of a series on|
the United States
Bayard Rustin (//; March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987) was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. He was born and raised in Pennsylvania, where his family was involved in civil rights work. In 1936, he moved to Harlem, New York City, where he earned a living as a nightclub and stage singer. He continued activism for civil rights.
In the pacifist groups Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the War Resisters League (WRL), Rustin practiced nonviolence. A member of the Communist Party before 1941, he collaborated with A. Philip Randolph on the March on Washington Movement in 1941 to press for an end to discrimination in employment. He was a leading activist of the early Civil Rights Movement, helping to initiate a 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge, with civil disobedience, the racial segregation issue related to interstate busing. He recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.'s leadership, and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King's leadership. Rustin promoted the philosophy of nonviolence and the practices of nonviolent resistance, which he had observed while working with Mahatma Gandhi's movement in India, and helped teach Martin Luther King, Jr. about nonviolence.
Rustin became a leading strategist of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1968. He was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was headed by A. Philip Randolph, the leading African-American labor-union president and socialist. Rustin also influenced young activists, such as Tom Kahn and Stokely Carmichael, in organizations such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
After the passage of the civil rights legislation of 1964–65, Rustin focused attention on the economic problems of working-class and unemployed African Americans, suggesting that the civil-rights movement had left its period of "protest" and had entered an era of "politics", in which the black community had to ally with the labor movement. Rustin became the head of the AFL–CIO's A. Philip Randolph Institute, which promoted the integration of formerly all-white unions and promoted the unionization of African Americans. The Institute under Rustin's leadership also advanced and campaigned for (from 1966 to 1968) A Freedom Budget for All Americans, linking the concepts of racial justice with economic justice. Supported by over 200 prominent civil-rights activists, trade unionists, religious leaders, academics and others, it outlined a plan to eliminate poverty and unemployment in the United States within a ten-year period. Rustin became an honorary chairperson of the Socialist Party of America in 1972, before it changed its name to Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA); Rustin acted as national chairman of SDUSA during the 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. At the time of his death in 1987, he was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti.
Rustin was a gay man who had been arrested for homosexual activity in 1953 (it was criminalized in parts of the United States until 2003). Rustin's sexuality, or at least his public criminal charge, was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders because it detracted from his effectiveness. Rustin was attacked as a "pervert" or "immoral influence" by political opponents from segregationists to black power militants, from the 1950s through the 1970s. In addition, his pre-1941 Communist Party affiliation when he was a young man was controversial, having caused scrutiny by the FBI. To avoid such attacks, Rustin served rarely as a public spokesperson. He usually acted as an influential adviser behind the scenes to civil-rights leaders. In the 1980s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.
President Ronald Reagan issued a statement on Rustin's death in 1987, praising his work for civil rights and his shift toward neoconservative politics over the years. On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania to Florence Rustin and Archie Hopkins, but raised by his maternal grandparents, Julia (Davis) and Janifer Rustin, as the ninth of their twelve children; growing up he believed his biological mother was his older sister. His grandparents were local caterers and relatively wealthy who raised Rustin in a large house. Julia Rustin was a Quaker, although she attended her husband's African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were frequent guests in the Rustin home. With these influences in his early life, in his youth Rustin campaigned against racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws.
In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce University, a historically black college (HBCU) in Ohio operated by the AME Church. As a student at Wilberforce, Rustin was active in a number of campus organizations, including the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He was expelled from Wilberforce in 1936 after organizing a strike, and later attended Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania). Cheyney honored Rustin with a posthumous "Doctor of Humane Letters" degree at its 2013 commencement.
After completing an activist training program conducted by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Rustin moved to Harlem in 1937 and began studying at City College of New York. There he became involved in efforts to defend and free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men in Alabama who were accused of raping two white women. He joined the Young Communist League for a small period of time in 1936, before becoming disillusioned with the party. Soon after arriving in New York City, he became a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Rustin was an accomplished tenor vocalist, an asset which earned him admission to both Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College with music scholarships. In 1939, he was in the chorus of a short-lived musical that starred Paul Robeson. Blues singer Josh White was also a cast member, and later invited Rustin to join his band, "Josh White and the Carolinians". This gave Rustin the opportunity to become a regular performer at the Café Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, widening his social and intellectual contacts. A few albums on Fellowship Records featuring his singing were produced from the 1950s through the 1970s.
Rustin's personal philosophy is said to have been inspired by combining Quaker pacifism with socialism (as taught by A. Philip Randolph) and the theory of non-violent protest, popularized by Mahatma Gandhi.
Following directions from the Soviet Union, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and its members were active in the civil rights movement for African Americans. Following Stalin's "theory of nationalism", the CPUSA once favored the creation of a separate nation for African-Americans to be located in the American Southeast, the center of the greatest concentration of black population. In 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin ordered the CPUSA to abandon civil rights work and focus on supporting U.S. entry into World War II.
Disillusioned, Rustin began working with members of the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas, particularly A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; another socialist mentor was the pacifist A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). FOR hired Rustin as a race relation secretary in the late summer of 1941.
The three of them proposed a march on Washington in 1941 to protest racial segregation in the armed forces and widespread discrimination in employment. Meeting with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office, Randolph respectfully and politely, but firmly told President Roosevelt that African Americans would march in the capital unless desegregation occurred. To prove their good faith, the organizers canceled the planned march after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act), which banned discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies. The leader of the organizers, Randolph, cancelled the march against Rustin's advisement. The armed forces were not desegregated until 1948, under an Executive Order issued by President Harry S. Truman.
Randolph felt that FOR had succeeded in their goal and wanted to dissolve the committee. Again, Rustin disagreed with him and voiced his differing opinion in a national press conference, which he later regretted.
Rustin traveled to California to help protect the property of the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, most native-born, who had been imprisoned in internment camps. Impressed with Rustin's organizational skills, A.J. Muste appointed him as FOR's secretary for student and general affairs.
Rustin was also a pioneer in the movement to desegregate interstate bus travel. In 1942, he boarded a bus in Louisville, bound for Nashville, and sat in the second row. A number of drivers asked him to move to the back, according to Southern practice of Jim Crow, but Rustin refused. The bus was stopped by police 13 miles north of Nashville and Rustin was arrested. He was beaten and taken to the police station, but was released uncharged.
In 1942, Rustin assisted two other FOR staffers, George Houser and James L. Farmer, Jr., and activist Bernice Fisher as they formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Rustin was not a direct founder, but was "an uncle of CORE," Farmer and Houser said later. CORE was conceived as a pacifist organization based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Modeled after Mohandas Gandhi's non-violent resistance against British rule in India, it was influenced by his protege Krishnalal Shridharani's book War without Violence.
Declared pacifists who refused induction into the military, Rustin, Houser, and other members of FOR and CORE were convicted of violating the Selective Service Act. From 1944 to 1946, Rustin was imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, where he organized protests against segregated dining facilities. During his incarceration, Rustin also organized FOR's Free India Committee. After his release from prison, he was frequently arrested for protesting against British colonial rule in India and Africa.
Just before a trip to Africa while college secretary of the FOR, Rustin recorded a 10-inch LP for the Fellowship Records label. He sang spirituals and Elizabethan songs, accompanied on the harpsichord by Margaret Davison.
Rustin and Houser organized the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. This was the first of the Freedom Rides to test the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel as unconstitutional. Rustin and CORE executive secretary George Houser recruited a team of fourteen men, divided equally by race, to ride in pairs through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The NAACP opposed CORE's Gandhian tactics as too meek. Participants in the Journey of Reconciliation were arrested several times. Arrested with Jewish activist Igal Roodenko, Rustin served twenty-two days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating state Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation.
In 1948, Rustin traveled to India to learn techniques of nonviolent civil resistance directly from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. The conference had been organized before Gandhi's assassination earlier that year. Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin also met with leaders of independence movements in Ghana and Nigeria. In 1951, he formed the Committee to Support South African Resistance, which later became the American Committee on Africa.
Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California, in 1953 for sexual activity with another man in a parked car. Originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of "sex perversion" (as sodomy was officially referred to in California then, even if consensual) and served 60 days in jail. This was the first time that his homosexuality had come to public attention. He had been and remained candid in private about his sexuality, although homosexual activity was still criminalized throughout the United States. After his conviction, he was fired from FOR. He became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League. Later, in Montana, an American Legion chapter made his conviction in Pasadena public to try to cancel his lectures in the state.
Rustin 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," published in 1955. This was one of the most influential and widely commented upon pacifist essays in the United States. Rustin had wanted to keep his participation quiet, as he believed that his known sexual orientation would be used by critics as an excuse to compromise the 71-page pamphlet when it was published. It analyzed the Cold War and the American response to it, and recommended non-violent solutions.
Rustin took leave from the War Resisters League in 1956 to advise minister Martin Luther King Jr. of the Baptist Church on Gandhian tactics. King was organizing the public transportation boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. According to Rustin, "I think it's fair to say that Dr. King's view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott began. In other words, Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns." Rustin convinced King to abandon the armed protection, including a personal handgun. In a 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Rustin also reflected that his integrative ideology began to differ from King's. He believed a social movement "has to be based on the collective needs of people at this time, regardless of color, creed, race."
The following year, Rustin and King began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Many African-American leaders were concerned that Rustin's sexual orientation and past Communist membership would undermine support for the civil rights movement. U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was a member of the SCLC's board, forced Rustin's resignation from the SCLC in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin's morals charge in Congress. Although Rustin was open about his sexual orientation and his conviction was a matter of public record, the events had not been discussed widely beyond the civil rights leadership.
Despite shunning from some civil rights leaders,
[w]hen the moment came for an unprecedented mass gathering in Washington, Randolph pushed Rustin forward as the logical choice to organize it.
A few weeks before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, Senator Strom Thurmond railed against Rustin as a "Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual," and had his entire Pasadena arrest file entered in the record. Thurmond also produced a Federal Bureau of Investigation photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing, to imply that there was a same-sex relationship between the two. Both men denied the allegation of an affair.
Rustin was instrumental in organizing the march. He drilled off-duty police officers as marshals, bus captains to direct traffic, and scheduled the podium speakers. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rachelle Horowitz were aides. Despite King's support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not want Rustin to receive any public credit for his role in planning the march. Nevertheless, he did become well known. On September 6, 1963, a photograph of Rustin and Randolph appeared on the cover of Life magazine, identifying them as "the leaders" of the March.
At the beginning of 1964, Reverend Milton Galamison and other Harlem community leaders invited Rustin to coordinate a citywide boycott of public schools to protest their de facto segregation. Prior to the boycott, the organizers asked the United Federation of Teachers Executive Board to join the boycott or ask teachers to join the picket lines. The union declined, promising only to protect from reprisals any teachers who participated. More than 400,000 New Yorkers participated in a one-day February 3, 1964 boycott. Historian Daniel Perlstein notes that "newspapers were astounded both by the numbers of black and Puerto Rican parents and children who boycotted and by the complete absence of violence or disorder from the protesters." It was, Rustin stated, and newspapers reported, "the largest civil rights demonstration" in American history. Rustin said that "the movement to integrate the schools will create far-reaching benefits" for teachers as well as students.
The protest demanded complete integration of the city's schools (which would require some whites to attend schools in black neighborhoods), and it challenged the coalition between African Americans and white liberals. An ensuing white backlash affected relations among the black leaders. Writing to black labor leaders, Rustin denounced Galamison for seeking to conduct another boycott in the spring, and soon abandoned the coalition.
Rustin organized a May 18 march which called for "maximum possible" integration. Perlstein recounts. "This goal was to be achieved through such modest programs as the construction of larger schools and the replacement of junior high schools with middle schools. The UFT and other white moderates endorsed the May rally, yet only four thousand protesters showed up, and the Board of Education was no more responsive to the conciliatory May demonstration than to the earlier, more confrontational boycott."
When Rustin was invited to speak at the University of Virginia in 1964, school administrators tried to ban him, out of fear that he would organize a school boycott there. The flagship state university and local schools were still segregated.
In the spring of 1964, Rev. Martin Luther King was considering hiring Rustin as executive director of SCLC, but was advised against it by Stanley Levison, a longtime activist friend of Rustin's. He opposed the hire because of what he considered Rustin's growing devotion to the political theorist Max Schachtman. "Schachtmanites" have been described as an ideologically cultish group with ardently anti-communist positions, and attachments to the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO.
At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, which followed Freedom Summer in Mississippi, Rustin became an adviser to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP); they were trying to gain recognition as the legitimate, non-Jim Crow delegation from their state, where blacks had been officially disenfranchised since the turn of the century (as they were generally throughout the South) and excluded from the official political system. DNC leaders Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey offered only two non-voting seats to the MFDP, with the official seating going to the regular segregationist Mississippi delegation. Rustin, following a line set by Shachtman and AFL-CIO leaders, urged the MFDP to take the offer. MFDP leaders, including Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, angrily rejected the arrangement; many of their supporters became highly suspicious of Rustin. Rustin's attempt to compromise appealed to the Democratic Party leadership.
After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Rustin advocated closer ties between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party, specifically the party's base among the white working class, many of whom still had strong union affiliations. With Tom Kahn, Rustin wrote an influential article in 1964 called "From Protest to Politics," published in Commentary magazine; it analyzed the changing economy and its implications for African Americans. Rustin wrote presciently that the rise of automation would reduce the demand for low-skill high-paying jobs, which would jeopardize the position of the urban African-American working class, particularly in northern states. He believed that the working class had to collaborate across racial lines for common economic goals. His prophecy has been proven right in the dislocation and loss of jobs for many urban African Americans due to restructuring of industry in the coming decades.
Rustin believed that the African-American community needed to change its political strategy, building and strengthening a political alliance with predominately white unions and other organizations (churches, synagogues, etc.) to pursue a common economic agenda. He wrote that it was time to move from protest to politics. Rustin's analysis of the economic problems of the Black community was widely influential.
He also argued that the African-American community was threatened by the appeal of identity politics, particularly the rise of "Black power." He thought this position was a fantasy of middle-class black people that repeated the political and moral errors of previous black nationalists, while alienating the white allies needed by the African-American community. Historian Randall Kennedy noted later that, while Rustin had a general "disdain of nationalism," he had a "very different attitude toward Jewish nationalism" and was "unflaggingly supportive of Zionism."
Commentary editor-in-chief Norman Podhoretz had commissioned the article from Rustin, and the two men remained intellectually and personally aligned for the next 20 years. Podhoretz and the magazine promoted the neoconservative movement, which had implications for civil rights initiatives as well as other economic aspects of the society. In 1985 Rustin publicly praised Podhoretz for his refusal to "pander to minority groups" and for opposing affirmative action quotas in hiring as well as black studies programs in colleges.
Because of these positions, Rustin was criticized as a "sell-out" by many of his former colleagues in the civil rights movement, especially those connected to grassroots organizing. They charged that he was lured by the material comforts that came with a less radical and more professional type of activism. While biographer John D'Emilio rejects these characterizations, Randall Kennedy wrote in a 2003 article that descriptions of Rustin as "a bought man" are "at least partly true."
Rustin increasingly worked to strengthen the labor movement, which he saw as the champion of empowerment for the African-American community and for economic justice for all Americans. He contributed to the labor movement's two sides, economic and political, through support of labor unions and social-democratic politics. He was the founder and became the Director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which coordinated the AFL-CIO's work on civil rights and economic justice. He became a regular columnist for the AFL-CIO newspaper.
On the political side of the labor movement, Rustin increased his visibility as a leader of the American social democracy. In early 1972 he became a national co-chairman of the Socialist Party of America. In December 1972, when the Socialist Party changed its name to Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA) by a vote of 73–34, Rustin continued to serve as national co-chairman, along with Charles S. Zimmerman of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). In his opening speech to the December 1972 Convention, Co-Chairman Rustin called for SDUSA to organize against the "reactionary policies of the Nixon Administration"; Rustin also criticized the "irresponsibility and élitism of the 'New Politics' liberals". In later years, Rustin served as the national chairman of SDUSA.
Like many liberals and socialists, Rustin supported President Lyndon B. Johnson's containment policy against communism, while criticizing specific conduct of this policy. In particular, to maintain independent labor unions and political opposition in Vietnam, Rustin and others gave critical support to U.S. military intervention in the Vietnam War, while calling for a negotiated peace treaty and democratic elections. Rustin criticized the specific conduct of the war, though. For instance, in a fundraising letter sent to War Resisters League supporters in 1964, Rustin wrote of being "angered and humiliated by the kind of war being waged, a war of torture, a war in which civilians are being machine gunned from the air, and in which American napalm bombs are being dropped on the villages."
Along with Allard Lowenstein and Norman Thomas, Rustin worked with the CIA-sponsored Committee on Free Elections in the Dominican Republic, which lent international credibility to a 1966 ballot effectively rigged against the socialist former president, Juan Bosch.
In 1970 Rustin called for the U.S. to send military jets in the fight against Arab states by Israel; referring to a New York Times article he authored, Rustin wrote to Prime Minister Golda Meir "...I hope that the ad will also have an effect on a serious domestic question: namely, the relations between the Jewish and the Negro communities in America." Rustin was concerned about unity between two groups that he argued faced discrimination in America and abroad, and also believed that Israel's democratic ideals were proof that justice and equality would prevail in the Arab territories despite the atrocities of war. His former colleagues in the peace movement considered it to be a profound betrayal of Rustin's nonviolent ideals.
Rustin maintained his strongly anti-Soviet and anti-communist views later in his life, especially with regard to Africa. Rustin co-wrote with Carl Gershman (a former director of Social Democrats, USA and future Ronald Reagan appointee) an essay entitled "Africa, Soviet Imperialism & the Retreat of American Power," in which he decried Russian and Cuban involvement in the Angolan Civil War and defended the military intervention by apartheid South Africa on behalf of the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). "And if a South African force did intervene at the urging of black leaders and on the side of the forces that clearly represent the black majority in Angola, to counter a non-African army of Cubans ten times its size, by what standard of political judgment is this immoral?" Rustin accused the Soviet Union of a classic imperialist agenda in Africa in pursuit of economic resources and vital sea lanes, and called the Carter Administration "hypocritical" for claiming to be committed to the welfare of blacks while doing too little to thwart Russian and Cuban expansion throughout Africa.
In 1976, Rustin helped found the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) with Paul Nitze, leader of the CIAs Team B project. CPD promoted Team B's controversial intelligence claims about Soviet foreign policy, using them as an argument against arms control agreements such as SALT II. This cemented Rustin's leading role in the neoconservative movement.
The plight of Jews in the Soviet Union reminded Rustin of the struggles that blacks faced in the United States. Soviet Jews faced many of the same forms of discrimination in employment, education and housing, while also being prisoners within their own country by being denied the chance to emigrate by Soviet authorities. After seeing the injustice that Soviet Jews faced, Rustin became a leading voice in advocating for the movement of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel. He worked closely with Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, who introduced legislation that tied trade relations with the Soviet Union to their treatment of Jews. In 1966 he chaired the historic Ad hoc Commission on Rights of Soviet Jews organized by the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews, leading a panel of six jurors in the Commission’s public tribunal on Jewish life in the Soviet Union. Members of the panel included Telford Taylor, the Nuremberg war trial prosecutor and Columbia University professor of law; Dr. John C. Bennett, president of the Union Theological Seminary; Reverend George B. Ford, pastor emeritus of the Corpus Christi Church; Samuel Fishman representing United Automobile Workers; and Norman Thomas, veteran Socialist leader. The commission collected testimonies from Soviet Jews and compiled them into a report that was delivered to the secretary general of the United Nations. The report urged the international community to demand that the Soviet authorities allow Jews to practice their religion, preserve their culture and to emigrate from the USSR at their will. The testimonies from Soviet Jews were published by Moshe Decter, the executive secretary of the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews, in a book— Redemption! Jewish freedom letters from Russia, with a foreword by Rustin. Through the 1970s and 1980s Rustin wrote several articles on the subject of Soviet Jewry and appeared at Soviet Jewry movement rallies, demonstrations, vigils, and conferences, in the United States and abroad. He co-sponsored the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry. Rustin allied with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an outspoken advocate for Soviet Jewry, and worked closely with Senator Henry Jackson, informing the Jackson–Vanik amendment—a vital legislation that restricted United States trade with the Soviet Union in relation to its treatment of Jews.
He also testified on behalf of New York State's Gay Rights Bill. In 1986, he gave a speech "The New Niggers Are Gays," in which he asserted,
Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new "niggers" are gays.... It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change.... The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.
While there is a recurring tendency to describe Rustin as a pioneering "out gay man" the truth is more complex. In 1986, Rustin was invited to contribute to the book In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. He declined, explaining
I was not involved in the struggle for gay rights as a youth. ...I did not "come out of the closet" voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. ...I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter. As such, it has not been a factor which has greatly influenced my role as an activist.
Rustin did not engage in any gay rights activism until the 1980s. He was urged to do so by his partner Walter Naegle, who has said that "I think that if I hadn't been in the office at that time, when these invitations [from gay organizations] came in, he probably wouldn't have done them."
Due to the lack of marriage equality at the time Rustin and partner Walter Naegle took an unconventional step to solidify their partnership and protect their unification. In 1982 Rustin adopted Naegle, 30 years old at the time, in order to legalize their union. Naegle explains,
We actually had to go through a process as if Bayard was adopting a small child. My biological mother had to sign a legal paper, a paper disowning me. They had to send a social worker to our home. When the social worker arrived, she had to sit us down to talk to us to make sure that this was a fit home.
Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. An obituary in The New York Times reported, "Looking back at his career, Mr. Rustin, a Quaker, once wrote: 'The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.' " Rustin was survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of ten years.
President Ronald Reagan issued a statement on Rustin's death, praising his work for civil rights and "for human rights throughout the world." He added that Rustin "was denounced by former friends, because he never gave up his conviction that minorities in America could and would succeed based on their individual merit."
Rustin "faded from the shortlist of well-known civil rights lions," in part because he was active behind the scenes, and also because of public discomfort with his sexual orientation and former communist membership. In addition, Rustin's tilt toward neo-conservatism in the late 1960s led him into disagreement with most civil rights leaders. But, the 2003 documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize nominee, and the March 2012 centennial of Rustin's birth have contributed to renewed recognition of his extensive contributions.
Rustin served as chairman of Social Democrats, USA, which, The Washington Post wrote in 2013, "was a breeding ground for many neoconservatives". In the 1970s, he was among the second-age neoconservatives, and in 1979, was elevated to vice-chair of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, an organization that helped revive the Committee on the Present Danger.
According to Daniel Richman, former clerk for United States Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, Marshall's friendship with Rustin, who was open about his homosexuality, played a significant role in Marshall's dissent from the court's 5–4 decision upholding the constitutionality of state sodomy laws in the later overturned 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick.
Several buildings have been named in honor of Rustin, including the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex located in Chelsea, Manhattan; Bayard Rustin High School in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania; Bayard Rustin Library at the Affirmations Gay/Lesbian Community Center in Ferndale, Michigan; and the Bayard Rustin Social Justice Center in Conway, Arkansas.
In July 2007, with the permission of the Estate of Bayard Rustin, a group of San Francisco Bay Area African-American LGBT community leaders officially formed the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition (BRC), to promote greater participation in the electoral process, advance civil and human rights issues, and promote the legacy of Mr. Rustin. In addition, the Bayard Rustin Center for LGBTQA Activism, Awareness and Reconciliation is located at Guilford College, a Quaker school. Formerly the Queer and Allied Resource Center, the center was rededicated in March 2011 with the permission of the Estate of Bayard Rustin and featured a keynote address by social justice activist Mandy Carter.
An anthology movie, Out of the Past" featured letters and archive footage of Rustin.
A Pennsylvania State Historical Marker is placed at Lincoln and Montgomery Avenues, West Chester, Pennsylvania; the marker commemorating his accomplishments lies on the grounds of Henderson High School, which he attended.
Rustin was posthumously awarded honorary membership into Delta Phi Upsilon, a fraternity for gay, bisexual and progressive men.
On August 8, 2013, President Barack Obama announced that he would posthumously award Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award in the United States. The citation in the press release stated:
Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.
In 2016 the Greensboro Mural Project, created a mural in honor of Bayard Rustin located at New Garden Friends Meeting in Greensboro, NC. John Hunter designed the mural, their first, honoring the legacy of Bayard Rustin and choosing to be an angelic troublemaker in the process.
Chief of Staff of mammoth operation, Bayard Rustin, (with cigarette), presides at news conferenceAvailable via books.google.com with Advanced Search ISSN 0012-9011 date Nov 1963
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