Martin Luther King, Jr. was mentored by Bayard Rustin – a gay civil rights pioneer

Bayard Rustin was a trailblazing, openly gay civil rights activist. and the architect of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Rustin introduced King to the precepts of nonviolence during the Montgomery bus boycott, which planted the seed and lead to the Civil Rights Movement.

Rustin, however, remained in the background for the sake of the movement, only to be sacrificed by its leaders as a political liability.

Bayard Rustin

Also, many leaders in the civil rights movement told Rustin to sit at the back of the bus.

“Rustin hardly appears in all the voluminous literature produced about the 1960s,” said 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, said Angela Bowen, assistant professor of women’s studies at Cal State Long Beach, told the Press-Telegram in Long Beach in 2003.

“Bayard was ostracized particularly by black leaders because they were homophobic. They said he would bring disgrace on them because he was gay,” she said.

“Bayard knew they were little minded, and he was ahead of his time,” Bowen said.

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Though some black leaders worried Rustin sexual orientation would be a liability, A. Philip Randolph, president of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, championed Rustin as the march organizer.

Presidential Medal of Freedom

More than 25 years after his death, Rustin was finally acknowledged for his contributions to the nation. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — in 2013. Rustin died in 1987 at the age of 75.

Rustin is still unknown to most people, including the LGBT community, but the National Justice Coalition hopes to change that lack of awareness. It launched the Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemoration Project to encourage others to remember and honor Rustin’s legacy.

Born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania., Rustin was raised by his grandparents and deeply influenced by his grandmother, a fierce advocate for social justice.

In 1942, Rustin went to California on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee to help Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps during the war.

Rustin also was a committed missionary of Gandhian nonviolence. Rustin spent three years, from 1943 to 1946, in a federal penitentiary as a conscientious objector to World War II.

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.

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Nonviolence champion

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.

“Rustin’s greatest historical legacy is he did more than anyone to bring the Gandhian message of militant nonviolence to the United States and to the black freedom struggle,” D’Emilio said.

In addition, Bowen told the P-T, “Bayard was so much broader than everybody (in the civil rights movement). “Martin Luther King came along at a time when they needed a person like King. He rose to the occasion and grew into it.

“But a person like Bayard Rustin, who already had all that width and breadth and overview and internationalism, was also smart enough to know that (because of homophobia) he wasn’t going to be the person who was ever going to be leading things,” Bowen said.

Vision of equality

Rustin’s own words on the civil rights movement and gay rights are featured in the book “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin.”

Devon Carbado, co-editor of the book, told the P-T in 2003 that Rustin had a grand vision on equality.

“Rustin approached issues such as gay rights and racial equality from the point of view that all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, race and so forth, belong to the human family,” Carbado said.

“Rustin believed that we are united in a common cause simply because we are people, and the degree to which we allow any group to be singled out for persecution or to be separated out from the rest of the population,” Carbado said, “is a measure of how far we have fallen from this humanitarian ideal.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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