Bayard Rustin, 1963 | Associated Press | 14154
It is the anniversary of the famed 1960s March on Washington, DC, at which the late Dr King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. The Guardian looks at the contribution made to history by Bayard Rustin, King’s associate, who was kept in the background as some organizers considered him a liability due to the fact that he was unrepentantly and openly gay.
Rustin was brought up a Quaker and in 1944, after refusing to fight in World War Two, he had been jailed as a conscientious objector. His sexuality of course – in the context of the times he lived in – got him into trouble. His position became particularly vulnerable following his arrest in Pasadena, in 1953, when he was caught having sex with two men in a parked car. Charged with lewd vagrancy he plead out to a lesser ‘morals charge’ and was sent to jail for 60 days.
By the time the march was proposed, writes John D’Emilio,
“He had recently turned 50. He was still waiting for his day in the limelight, though likely believing it would never come. Prejudice of another sort, still not named as such in mid-century America, had curtailed his opportunities and limited his effectiveness.” Rustin, despite all the civil rights movement’s concerns about his draft dodging and homosexuality, went on to organise and lead the March on Washington.
“He had to build an organization out of nothing. He had to assemble a staff and shape them into a team able to perform under intense pressure. He had to craft a coalition that would hang together despite organizational competition, personal animosities and often antagonistic politics. He had to manoeuvre through the mine field of an opposition that ranged from liberals who were counselling moderation to segregationists out to sabotage the event. And he had to do all of this while staying enough out of the public eye so that the liabilities he carried would not undermine his work.”
Rustin’s work on the March – arguably one of the most effective, well supported and eventually, productive, protests ever, earned him a reputation for brilliance in organisation.
Bayard Rustin died on August 24, 1987 in Manhattan.
Fifty years on from the march, the White House has announced that Bayard Rustin will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.