This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for jobs and civil rights. Until recently it seemed as though one of its most important organisers would remain largely forgotten.
Bayard Rustin was a key strategist of the civil rights movement, as well as an adviser and mentor to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Historians have noted that it was Rustin who guided King to mass non-violent action to challenge the racist Jim Crow system.
Rustin was arguably both the most effective and most controversial of the civil rights leaders. He joined the Young Communist League in the 1930s. He was also a gay man who was open about his sexuality. As one campaign worker noted, “I don’t think Bayard was even aware of the closet.”
Living in Harlem during the 1930s Depression led him to develop a class analysis of racism. Rustin was also heavily influenced by his Quaker pacifist roots and he believed in non-violence.
He was jailed in Kentucky for refusing to fight during the Second World War, but sought to organise his fellow inmates against segregation and war.
In 1942 he helped to launch the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which organised some of the earliest “Freedom Rides” that challenged segregation in the US South. CORE would later inspire the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
He organised the “Journey of Reconciliation” in 1947 when a Supreme Court decision had deemed segregated rest facilities on interstate highways to be illegal. Rustin and his colleagues tested this and were arrested; he served 22 days on a chain gang.
In the 1950s gays and lesbians faced huge challenges. Many who had tasted a certain level of freedom away from home during the war, found themselves targets of the “Lavender Scare”. Gay men were among the early targets of purges which saw them sacked from federal jobs for fears they would be susceptible to blackmail.
Rustin was sacked after he was caught having sex with another man in California in 1953, but he found similar work with the grassroots War Resisters League and set about organising again.
This position and his connections to CORE helped him shape the movement against racism. He organised solidarity with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and met Martin Luther King, recognising that the boycott could transform the movement.
Homophobia followed Rustin wherever he went, and from all sides. King faced pressure from black church ministers to fire him as they feared an ex-communist homosexual could damage the movement’s image.
Rustin decided to step down rather than put King in a difficult position. However, King continued to look to him for advice as he became a more prominent national figure.
Rustin was close to the black trade union leader, A Philip Randolph and when it came to building the March on Washington in 1963, he chose Rustin as the chief organiser, understanding him to be best prepared to bring thousands from across the country.
Strom Thurmond, a racist southern Democrat, tipped off by the FBI, exposed the fact that Rustin had been arrested for “sex perversion.” However, the leaders of the march stood by Rustin.
The march was a huge success, as hundreds of thousands of people descended on Washington on 28 August 1963. Following the march, Rustin saw his influence grow enormously; however, he shifted rapidly to the right of other civil rights leaders.
While King would came to denounce the Vietnam War, Rustin refused to do so publicly, believing that the Johnson administration had achieved much for black people, and still had more to deliver.
He wrote a pamphlet calling for people to shift away from protest and enter the Democratic Party. He also failed to relate to the radical turn the movement took following the deaths of Malcolm X and later King, deeming Stokely Carmichael’s call for “Black Power” as too simplistic and “utopian”.
Although an openly gay man throughout his life, Rustin was slow to be involved with the burgeoning Gay Liberation Movement which erupted at the end of the 1960s. He did begin to speak out in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic disproportionately affected black, gay and bisexual men,
Rustin used his stature to push through supportive legislation and began to speak on “LGBT issues”.
For Rustin, the movement was never only for black people. He recognised that millions of other people were suffering and fought for unity by making links between the struggle against racism, imperialism and poverty.
Although he broke with the Communist Party early on, he always understood capitalism to be the cause of inequality in society, and that wider societal transformation was necessary to end these ills.
Even up to his death in 1987 he sought to organise workers of all colours to challenge racism, understanding that white workers had little to gain from a racist system.
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