Mr. March on Washington: Bayard Rustin

Everyone knew of the Big Six associated with the black civil rights movement of the 1960’s- Rev. Dr. Martin, John Lewis, A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins and James Farmer. Each of them led a major civil rights organization that issued the call for the historic— and not known for it full name— 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Also, each of them received the highest civilian award to be bestowed upon an American—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But there was also a Seventh big player associated with the March—Bayard Rustin a.k.a. “Mr. March on Washington.”

The September 6, 1963 cover of Life Magazine pictured both A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin as organizers of the March.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Rustin will also this year be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The association of Rustin to the March was inseparable to those who worked closely with him. “The 53-year-old known at the time as “Mr. March-on-Washington” was a lanky, cane-swinging, poetry-quoting black Quaker intellectual who wore his hair in a graying pompadour, “ Steve Hendrix wrote in “Bayard Rustin: Organizer of the March on Washington.”

“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” stated Norton. As a March on Washington volunteer in 1963 Bayard Rustin was Eleanor Holmes Norton’s boss. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”

While Rustin, inarguably, is one of the tallest trees in our forest, he’s still not a household.

“Rustin was one of the most important social justice activists in the U.S. in the 20th century,” says John D’Emilio, author of “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin” told Amy Goodman, host of “Democracy Now.” “Rustin pioneered the use of Gandhian nonviolence as a way of calling attention to segregation and other forms of racism in the United States.”

Rustin anonymity is largely due to the heterosexism that canonized the history of last century’s black civil rights movement.

Norton recalls the kerfuffle concerning Rustin’s sexuality.

“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” Norton stated to Steve Hendrix in a 2011 interview. “It flared up and then flared right back down,” Norton stated. “Thank God, because there was no substitute for Bayard.”

During the Civil Rights movement Bayard Rustin was always the man behind the scene, and a large part of that had to due with the fact that he was gay.

African American ministers involved in the Civil Right movement would have nothing to do with Rustin, and they intentionally rumored throughout the movement that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.

In a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in Open Hands, a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalls that difficult period quite vividly.

Rustin stated, “Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality. Martin set up a committee to discover what he should do. They said that, despite the fact that I had contributed tremendously to the organization…they thought I should separate myself from Dr. King. This was the time when [Rev. Adam Clayton] Powell threatened to expose my so-called homosexual relationship with Dr. King.”

When Rustin pushed him on the issue to speak up on his behalf King did not.

“Bayard made the decision to resign from his position. But he also expected at that point that he would be defended. And when he wasn’t defended, it was—it was painful. It was very painful. And he spent a couple of years, mostly—in the early ‘60s, mostly involved in the peace movement rather than in the civil rights movement because of that rupture. And it’s the March on Washington that brought him back into the center of things,”

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner and archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate stated in his August 12th interview on “Democracy Now”.

In John D’Emilo’s book Lost Prophet: The Life and times of Bayard Rustin he wrote the following on the matter:

“At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay.

‘Basically King said I can’t take on two queers at on time,’ one of Rustin’s associated recollected later.”

When Rustin was asked about MLK’s views on gays in a March 1987 interview with Redvers Jeanmarie he stated, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness…”

The homophobic closet of the black civil rights movement that forced Rustin in it is now finally being opened. And Rustin’s liberation from the movement’s closet is largely due to the continued and collective activism of us LGBTQs nationwide, refusing to allow Rustin to merely be a footnote in the history of the black civil rights movement or totally erased.

Our queer activism to keep Bayard’s legacy alive is not only the books and films that have “come out” about him, but it is also the annual breakfasts, luncheons, dinners and award given in his honor.

With the 50th anniversary of March upon us, and Rustin receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, everyone will now know of the Big Seven associated with the black civil rights movement of the 1960’s

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