Bayard Rustin’s Burden


There was a lot at stake at the Los Angeles 1960 Democratic Convention. Both Lyndon Johnson, and eventual nominee John F. Kennedy, were aggressively pursuing Black support for their presidential bids. Their contest presented an important political opportunity for Dr. Martin Luther King and his closest advisor and mentor, Bayard Rustin, to advance the pursuit of civil rights: they would organize a march to bring attention to the movement that had faded from America’s consciousness. But not everyone associated with the movement was on board.

The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the longtime Congressman from Harlem, also saw an opportunity — for himself. Powell had his sights set on becoming a Congressional committee chair, and a the very idea of a disruptive protest threatened his ambitions. He sent word to King that unless the protest was canceled Powell would knowingly and deliberately spread the false rumor that King and Rustin were lovers.

That Bayard Rustin was a gay man was known to Civil Rights leaders; he never hid his sexuality, though he was discreet both to protect himself and insulate the movement from possible extortion. However, that threat was made palpable in 1953 when Rustin was arrested and convicted in Pasadena, California for engaging in consensual sex with two (white) men in a parked car. The publication of his arrest cost him his longstanding position with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization dedicated to ending racial prejudice, and pushed an extraordinary strategist of the movement into history’s dark corner. And, it was that conviction that provided the ammunition to politicians who sought to gain personal advantage or stymie progress by attacking the man.

Few knew — or know — that it was Rustin who mentored King in the practice of non-violent social resistance, that it was Rustin who worked with Ella Baker to will the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) into being so that the Southern Black clergy would be an organized, active counterweight to the cautious, deliberate legal strategy of the NAACP.

Rustin continued to struggle to be his authentic self and ably serve the movement whose success he believed was unquestionably the greater good. Rather than see the action canceled, Rustin resigned, under pressure, from the SCLC and retreated from his public advisor role to King. The 5,000 strong rally, sponsored by the NAACP, and with King at its head, took place on the eve of the convention. The chair of the DNC addressed the crowd, promising that a civil rights plank in the party’s platform.

Powell, who was inexplicably allowed to speak at the rally, continued in Congress under multiple scandals before being defeated in 1970; he lived the rest of his life in political exile at his estate in Bimini. Rustin, of course, would go on to plan and execute the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Think about it: 250,00 people gathered to protest for their rights and not a single arrest, despite an aggressively visible police presence. Every subsequent successful march on the Capitol owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to this genius organizer.

Rustin was an out gay black man at a time when being either was dangerous, and subjected him to dual surveillance by the police; his work in non-violent social change added yet a third level of hostile Cold War era scrutiny by the FBI. Virtually any civil rights milestone or sacrifice one my name, Rustin did it first and paid a much heavier price; when he was arrested in 1947 for not giving up his seat on an interstate bus (a right that had recently been enshrined by a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court ruling), he was convicted for violating a Jim Crow state law and sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang.

It is only very recently that the burden of constant surveillance as a queer man, as a black man, as an “Angelic Troublemaker” at the height of the Cold War, is understood, and that the pivotal role of Rustin in the Civil Rights Movement is being acknowledged. It was Rustin who organized the momentous 1963 March on Washington and too many other social justice campaigns, at home and abroad, too numerous to list here. Rustin died in 1987, long enough to see the first Lesbian and Gay March on Washington in 1979, and weeks before the second.

Awareness and appreciation of his mammoth contributions is growing. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom. At my behest, the California Legislature passed a resolution in 2019 urging that USPS commemorate his life and work with a stamp, a campaign, co-sponsored by The Task Force since 2014. Aggravatingly, USPS has taken no steps to do despite the fact that it has issued stamps for virtually all other leaders in the civil rights movement and for the March that he realized!

In recognition the unjustness of the legalstain on Rustin’s character, Governor Gavin Newsom publicly announced a posthumous pardon of his California conviction, and has extended the offer of review of other wrongful, homophobic convictions to others in 2020. That same year I paid a third visit to the Pasadena City Council to ask them to issue a resolution in support of a Bayard stamp and to apologize for the City’s role in his conviction, much as Montgomery had done for the Freedom Riders or New York for Stonewall. As of this writing, they have inexplicably not even bothered to agendize a discussion, let alone act.

Pressure continues to build: City Lights Books has published a book on Rustin’s life for YA readers, his was highlighted in the 2021 documentary FX documentary Pride, and a feature film on his life, produced by the Obamas, is expected to be released soon. For my part, I will be going back to Pasadena to renew the demand that they make things right by this phenomenally intersectional activist, organizer, and intellectual conscience of his country. I, and like minded supporters and activists, will continue to lobby politicians, faith leaders, union leaders and queers everywhere to compel the long overdue commemoration of Bayard Rustin’s contributions — and sacrifices — and that of other obscured and erased LGBTQ+ leaders and organizations with a USPS stamp series continues. His, and their, legacy, is Forever.