Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bayard Rustin – Openly Gay Activist who Mentored Martin Luther King, Jr. and Planned the March on Washignton

Martin Luther King, Jr., left, walks with Bayard Rustin in this 1956 photo. Rustin was King’s mentor and was the architect of King’s 1963 March on Washington.
On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a Dream Speech" on the Washington, D.C. mall, there has been all kinds of coverage and descriptions of reminiscences in the so-called main stream media.  Sadly, throughout most of it contains no mention of Bayard Rustin who not only planned much of the march on Washington in 1963, but who also mentored Martin Luther King, Jr.  Unfortunately, this omission is typical of the effort to "de-gay" history and deny prominent out gays their places in history.   A piece in the Press Telegram looks at this overlooked history.  Here are excerpts:

Bayard Rustin, a leader of the civil rights movement, mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, struggled much of his life against racism and homophobia..

Openly gay, he remained in the background for the sake of the movement, only to be sacrificed by its leaders as a political liability. Nevertheless, Rustin made crucial contributions to the civil rights movement and emerged as a gay rights activist.

BAYARD RUSTIN had a dream.

As a tireless and pioneering crusader for civil rights, social justice and economic equality, his life rested on the bedrock conviction that ordinary people could change the world.

Rustin also practiced what he preached – He helped create the civil rights movement, mentored Martin Luther King, Jr. on the practice of nonviolent protest and was the architect of the historic 1963 March on Washington
However, Rustin was openly gay and deemed a political liability. Many advisers in the civil rights movement told him to sit at the back of the bus.

“Rustin hardly appears in all the voluminous literature produced about the 1960s,” says John D’Emilio, author of the book “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.”  “He’s a man without a home in history.”

Rustin has been lost in the shadows of history at least in part because he was a gay man in an era when the stigma attached to this was unrelieved.”

Adds Angela Bowen, assistant professor of women’s studies at Cal State Long Beach, “He was ostracized particularly by black leaders because they were homophobic. They said he would bring disgrace on them because he was gay.

“Bayard knew they were little minded, and he was ahead of his time,” she says.
Long before King, Jr. became a national figure, Rustin routinely put his life on the line as a crusader for racial justice.

Rustin spent three years (1943-46) in a federal penitentiary as a conscientious objector to World War II (He was a Quaker).

A year later, Rustin organized the first “freedom ride” through the South. The riders were beaten, arrested and fined. Rustin served 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang.

In 1956, during the initial stages of the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin met the 26-year-old King, Jr. Rustin schooled the young leader in the mechanics of running a nonviolent protest.
[I]n 1963, A. Philip Randolph, president of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, tapped Rustin to organize the March on Washington.  Rustin and Randolph saw the event as far grander than ending the ruler for sitting at the back of the bus.

They envisioned is as a “catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice.”

Rustin was attacked by segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond as a “homosexual, a draft-dodger and a member of the Communist Party,” but this time the civil rights leadership stood by Rustin. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Rustin advocated a shift in strategy from protest to electoral politics – precisely at the moment when a more militant generation was taking to the streets in protest. Rustin was attacked as an “Uncle Tom” and viciously gay-baited by younger black nationalists.

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