Bayard Rustin was a leading facilitator and influential speaker during the Civil Rights Movement, entrenched in social justice at a very early age by his politically active grandparents. Possessing a charismatic personality, good education, and impressive organizing skills it would make sense that he was a prominently recognized figure in history, only that given everything he accomplished, his name will sparsely appear in any school history textbook. Despite Rustin’s achievements for the Civil Rights Movement he was repeatedly forced into the shadows because of his sexual identity.
Rustin’s most notable work includes organizing with Dr. King on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Previous to meeting Dr. King, he had already made waves in social justice through sit-ins and protests in addition to his evasion of the draft during WWII. Having been raised Quaker and adopting Gandhi’s non-violent resistance platform, he often spoke about the path of peace and pacifism.
In fact, he introduced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi’s teachings, as King had not at the time of their meeting solidified his position on nonviolence. Rustin acted as King’s most important advisor for many years, but his homosexuality prevented him from being a greater public ally for the movement. He was regularly challenged by individuals within the Civil Rights Movement who on all other accounts would have been allies.
Though he was open and comfortable with his own identity, Rustin was often the target of accusations of perversion and was even threatened with exposure of a false scandal implicating a sexual relationship between Rustin and King. Fearful that such an accusation would completely derail the Civil Rights Movement, King distanced himself from Rustin. King still corresponded with Rustin for advice, but avoided public meetings until the organization of the March on Washington began and it became abundantly clear that Rustin was the only person equipped to coordinate an event of its magnitude.
Bayard Rustin’s impact can be straightforwardly followed through history, but it is significant to note the impact his sexuality had on limiting his success. It can be argued that King could not have accomplished all that he did without Rustin’s advising, thus, it can be speculated that had Rustin been heterosexual he would have the same, if not greater, household name recognition as King today. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2013.
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