Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was an openly gay civil rights leader, an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., and he worked with A. Philip Randolph to organize the March on Washington movement which brought attention to employment discrimination based on race. He organized Freedom Rides and helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to further Martin Luther King Jr’s message about nonviolent protests. In fact, it was Rustin (who was 17 years older) who influenced King in the ways of attaining goals through nonviolence. Though he was known more for his association with MLK, Rustin also worked closely with other activists like Ella Baker, George Lawrence, and Stanley Levinson to bring attention to the needs of tenant farmers. As head of the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, Rustin helped integrate all-white unions and unionize Black workers.

As a young man, Rustin enrolled at Wilberforce University (Ohio) and pledged Omega Psi Phi fraternity, but he was expelled from Wilberforce in 1936 after staging a strike. He went on to enter Cheyney State Teachers’ College. He also studied at the City College of New York after completing an activist training program. During his time there, he became involved in the defense of nine Black boys who were accused of raping two white women (The Scottsboro Boys). He also took on the teachings of Quakerism.

Rustin’s contributions to social justice are countless, yet there seemed to be a willingness to relegate him to obscurity because of the greater public’s discomfort with his sexuality, social-democratic sensibilities, and former ties to communism. Thankfully, the 2003 documentary, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, renewed the public’s interest in his legacy, and his life has become a subject worthy of critical scholarship. Rustin died from a perforated appendix on August 24, 1987. He is survived by his partner of ten years, Walter Naegle. In 2003, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


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