Civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., came out to fight homophobia

In the battle against racism and homophobia, Bayard Rustin — the openly gay, trailblazing civil rights leader who mentored Martin Luther King, Jr. — refused to sit at the back of the bus.

Despite his amazing leadership and organizing skills —  Rustin was the architectural genius of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — Rustin was relegated to the shadows by other principals in the Civil Rights Movement because they thought his sexuality was a liability.


Rustin, however, believed the struggle against discrimination and prejudice was intersectional and must be fought at the same time.

In a recently released audio interview conducted with the Washington Blade in the mid 1980s, Rustin, who died in 1987, said he decided to admit to himself that he was gay in the 1940s after refusing to sit at the back of a segregated bus in the South, where Jim Crow laws flourished.

The audio will air Thursday in an episode of the podcast Making Gay History.

Rustin’s surviving boyfriend, Walter Naegle, gave the interview to the podcast, according to NPR, which has a sneak peak of the audio.

Bayard Rustin Martin Luther King Jr.

Bayard Rustin, left, was the architectural genius behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963. King, right, also was mentored by Rustin. Photo: Monroe Frederick/Courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin.


In the interview, Rustin remembers walking toward the back of a bus when a white child grabbed his necktie. The child’s mother said, Don’t touch a nigger, Rustin said in the interview.

“If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it,” said Rustin, who saw the incident as an opportunity to tackle racism

“I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that,” Rustin said.


Rustin then realized his identity as an African-American was equally as important as his identity as a gay man.

“It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare my homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice,” Rustin said. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

Phillip Zonkel can be reached at 562-294-5996 or [email protected]

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.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!