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Remembering Bayard Rustin On King Day

It’s MLK Day and I can’t help but think about activist Bayard Rustin. An openly gay black man, Rustin was a key architect of the non-violent civil rights movement (a must see is the documentary Brother Outsider; rustin.org). He was a friend and advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and he was the chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.

But Rustin’s involvement was repressed and his recognition largely ignored by the mainstream (black liberals and white conservatives alike) because of his sexual orientation. The sad irony is that many of today’s African American political and religious leaders have denounced gay rights as a civil rights agenda. Yet, it was Rustin who advised King on the use of nonviolence tactics as they organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and later protests (Rustin had traveled to India to learn nonviolence resistance directly from followers of Gandhi). It was Rustin in the forefront with Ella Baker in 1957 when King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the midst of religious leaders such as the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Rev Joseph Lowery of Mobile, Rev. Ralph Abernathy of Montgomery, and the Rev CK Steele of Tallahassee.

Even before his association with King, Rustin was an active drum major for justice. He was involved in efforts to free the Scottsboro Boys—nine young black men who had been wrongly accused of raping two white women. Rustin along with George House, James L. Farmer Jr., and Bernice Fisher helped form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Rustin’s downplay in the civil rights movement came about when King’s opponents, like Senator Strom Thurmond, tried linking the civil rights movement with sexual and moral deviation. Rustin had been convicted in 1953 for the crime of ‘sexual perversion’ under California’s consensual sodomy law. He also had black foes like Harlem U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who caused the biggest rift in 1960 when he threatened to falsely accuse King and Rustin of having a sexual affair and to discuss Rustin’s criminal conviction in Congress. This caused a temporary falling out between King and Rustin until Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, joined forces to organize the March of Washington.

Rustin’s activism extends beyond the rights of African-Americans. He advocated the protection of property of Japanese-Americans imprisoned in interment camps. He protested against British rule in India and apartheid in South Africa. He served such groups as the Soviet Jews and Israel refugees. The principal factors which influenced his life were: 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; and 5) a belief that all people are one.

In 1986, Rustin testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill. He later asserted in a speech that blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change, because they were in every segment of society and there were laws that helped protect them from racial discrimination. The most vulnerable group in his mind was gay people. He is quoted:

“Indeed, if you want to know whether today people believe in democracy, if you want to know whether they are true democrats, if you want to know whether they are human rights activists, the question to ask is, ‘What about gay people?’ Because that is now the litmus paper by which this democracy is to be judged.”

Skin pigmentation and gender may be more identifiable, but hate is hate. The sad and ugly truth is that at the heart of the debate over gay rights is hatred not righteousness.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important. –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

–Carolyn M. Brown


Categories: Religion
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