The Work of Bayard Rustin
February 8, 2013 by Guest contributor
Post submitted by Allison Brickell, HRC Digital Media Intern
Bayard Rustin was a major American leader of social rights movements in the United States. As a leading activist of the civil rights movement he helped to challenge racial segregation and promoted nonviolence to achieve goals. Rustin helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a way to bolster Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership and was influential in organizations like the Congress On Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
To avoid attacks from others on what they saw as the “perversion” and “immoral influence” of being gay, he rarely served as a public spokesman for anything and mainly advised other activist leaders. It wasn’t until the 1970s that he became a public advocate for gays and lesbians. At that time he worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House and testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill.
Since September of last year, Atlanta’s Morehouse College has offered a scholarship program named after Rustin. The program will allow 11 freshmen to take courses in community organizing and social justice modeled after the activist leader.
Rustin’s work has been a major influence at HRC. His activism mirrors the work of HRC and reflects a shared philosophy: that social justice is not just a gay issue or a race issue, it is simply a human issue.
Below is the article from HRC’s Equality Magazine Spring 2012 issue covering Bayard Rustin.
If you don’t know him, now’s the perfect time to get acquainted. This year marks the 100th birthday of Bayard Rustin, one of the country’s most influential — and most overlooked — civil rights strategists. He was a Quaker, African American and gay.
Rustin planned and directed the March on Washington in 1963. But his legacy goes even beyond that. Not only did Rustin school a young Martin Luther King Jr. in nonviolence and give him his first national platform, but he also fought for women, workers and the economically disadvantaged. He worked to integrate buses and schools. He spoke out against the mistreatment of prisoners. He had a vital role, in fact, in making direct action — rallies, marches, sit-ins, strikes and more — the common tactic it is today.
But Rustin also made a conscious effort to stay behind the scenes. Being openly gay in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was not easy. Homophobia was rife everywhere. He was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from key leadership positions because he was honest about who he was.
Now, Rustin’s life is available in his own words. More than 150 of his letters have been released in a new book, I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters. The book, edited by historian Michael G. Long, includes letters from private collections that were previously unavailable. The letters give a window into the smarts, spirit and charisma of Rustin and his ability to lead, as well as a look at the conversations among the top civil rights leaders of his time, noted Long, who spoke recently at a Washington forum attended by Rustin’s longtime partner, Walter Naegle, the executor of his estate, and several early activist colleagues of Rustin. Other letters show Rustin’s love of the good life — music, art, books and friends — and his desire to share them with others.
Born March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pa., Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents in the Quaker tradition, with its rich history of resistance and non-violence. After exceling in school and sports — and organizing fellow athletes at his high school to protest segregated accommodations on out-of-town trips — Rustin soon moved to Harlem, and his politics and protest began in earnest.
One of Rustin’s early letters, dated March 30, 1944, when he was 31, is to the warden of a Kentucky prison. It discusses racial injustice at the facility, and ways to curb it. It was, as Long said, “a daring move for a young black man in a southern prison.” In a 1947 letter, to the head of the North California Electric Bureau, Rustin criticizes the facility for using racist advertising. And in 1957, he writes to King, insisting that the civil rights movement express themes of spirituality and nonviolence. Other letters are to Davis Platt, an early boyfriend.
Rustin has been an inspiration to activists who do already know him, said Mandy Carter, who is based in North Carolina and coordinates the Bayard Rustin Commemoration education campaign.
His concept of the ‘power of one,’ of how each person can make a difference, greatly influenced her, said Carter, a co-founder of National Black Justice Coalition, a national black LGBT civil rights group and ally of the Human Rights Campaign.
Certainly, Rustin’s legacy is continuing. The recent marriage equality win in Maryland was possible, thanks in no small part to lessons learned from Rustin and his “brand of inclusive social activism,” according to an op-ed by HRC and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights celebrating Rustin’s life and work.
The victory “sent a clear message that social justice wasn’t a gay issue, or a black issue, or a woman’s issue: Rather we can and must continue to work together so that all members of our society achieve the rights, dignity and respect they deserve,” it said.
HRC’s Equality Magazine is the largest-circulation LGBT magazine in the country and features in-depth interviews and coverage of policies and social changes that impact the LGBT community. Earlier issues can be found online here.
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