Adventures in Feministory: Bayard Rustin, American activist

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Today's Martin Luther King Jr. Adventures in Feministory focuses on Bayard Rustin, one of the most important individuals in the Civil Rights Movement but whose contributions are are overlooked, then and now, because he was gay.

Rustin had always been a social justice activist. He practiced Gandhian nonviolence during the 1930s and 40s to protest World War II, and he wasn't just a conscientious objector--as a radical pacifist, he refused to serve in the civlian corps (which was part of the war effort) and spent three years in jail for it.

Rustin brought his background of nonviolence to the Civil Rights movement and trained and directed groups of activists to nonviolent sit-ins for integration around the South. He met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 and became one of his closest advisors, and was the reason why King would come to embrace nonviolence as the best method of achieving equality. It was also Rustin who laid out the blueprints of what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


Rustin and King

Being openly gay in a deeply homophobic era did not go without its problems--Rustin was at odds with the law, which at the time made homosexual acts illegal and it perfectly okay for police to raid gay spaces and arrest whoever they felt like. Rustin himself was arrested in 1953 for "consensual sodomy," an arrest that would be used against him later.

It also put him at odds within the liberal movements he was involved with, such as the Christian pacifist movement and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1960, as King was rising in prominence, a rival black leader, Senator Adam Clayton Powell of New York, threatened to reveal a untrue rumor that Rustin and King were having an affair. Rustin turned in his resignation to King and distanced himself from the Civil Rights movement for three years. However, A. Phillip Randolph knew Rustin was too valuable to remain outside the movement and enlisted him to organize a march on Washington. Organize he did....

Rustin had less than two months to organize what was expected to be the largest peaceful demonstration in American history. He took over a rundown office in Harlem and with a small staff set to work. Within days he had raised over $15,000 to bring the poor to Washington, drafted a mission statement for the march, and designed a plan for secuirty. He contracted with bus companies to transport the marchers, arranged for one thousand beds to be made available to those arriving the night before, and even enlisted hundreds of volunteers to prepare bag lunches for those who had not brought their own food.

Excerpt from Brother Outsider

But only weeks before the march, Strom Thurmond, virulent racist, segregationist, and would-be recipient of numerous Douchebag Decrees should they have existed back then, also delivered a speech to congress about Rustin's history and as communist, pacifist, and yes...sexual pervert. This time though, the movement stood behind Rustin, and the March on Washington, where King delivered the historic "I Have a Dream" speech, was a success, Thurmond be damned.

His Civil Rights movement involvement crossed into labor politics during the '70s, but Rustin was still actively writing (Check out Time on Two Crosses for his collected works). In his essay "Feminism and Equality," Rustin supported the women's rights movement but criticized it for the way that it did not frame its goals in terms of larger social problems in America, and in turn left out disenfranchised members of the population. He uses the example of abortion access not being framed in terms of socialized medicine for all, and children's education in terms of integration, rightly pointing out that these were just some of the reasons that black women were not part of the mainstream feminist movement.

He advocated for gay rights in the 1980s, testifying for the New York State Gay Rights Bill. "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." A year before his death in 1987, he delivered a speech called "The New N----rs" are Gays," in which he didn't argue that the struggle of black people were over, but that the value of a soceity is measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. "It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people."

In 2008 PBS produced a documentary on Rustin called Brother Outsider, which is an example of how Rustin's legacy is being recognized. Here's the trailer:

You can also check out Rustin's legacy at the Jordan/Rustin Coaltion, whose mission is to "empower Black same-gender loving, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and families in Greater Los Angeles, to promote equal marriage rights and to advocate for fair treatment of everyone without regard to race, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression."

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Comments

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Rock on

That was a wonderfully insightful, concisely written article- thank you for sharing Rustin's story on this holiday. I especially appreciate your presentation of his critiques of the feminist movement, much as I imagine he intended them, not as "bashing" but as a call to look at new ways to move forward.

Thanks for this! I plan to

Thanks for this! I plan to see that documentary for starters. It's amazing what lies just the hidden beneath the surface of the great stories.

Portland screening

If you're in Portland, the PSU Queer Resource Center is screening Brother Outsider this Wednesday, January 20th for free!

More info: http://www.qrc.pdx.edu/

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Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

MLK and gays

Did MLK ever make a statement about gays? Any statement acknowledging Bayard's homosexuality? Is there any record at all whether he was supportive or dismissive, other than letting Bayard "disappear" for a few years? I can't find any reference anywhere about this. It would be interesting to know if MLK ever took a position on gays - whatever his position might have been.

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