The Forgotten Genius Of Bayard Rustin

by Brendan James

Laura Williams welcomes more attention for a lesser-known hero of the Civil Rights Movement:

He helped organize and participated in the first freedom ride, 1947’s “Journey of Reconciliation” (for which he and several other participants were jailed and put in a chain gang). In the 1950s, he advised, strategized, and raised money behind the scenes for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helping to direct King’s rise to national prominence. He’s also credited with honing the King’s nonviolent strategy. Later, Rustin was the mastermind of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (now simply known as the March on Washington), organizing it in just two months.

But Rustin was kept in the shadows by the homophobia of both his enemies (segregationist Strom Thurmond used Rustin’s sexuality to denigrate the movement) and his allies.

In November, Rustin will be posthumously honored with the Medal of Freedom. It comes after decades of marginalization, in no small part due to his homosexuality. In a profile worth reading in full, Steven Thrasher interviews Rustin’s longtime partner, Walter Naegle:

In his final years, by the time he was sharing his life with Naegle, Rustin was marrying the fight for racial civil rights with the emerging gay rights movement. He challenged the terrain of contemporary prejudice in a speech in which he said, “The new ‘niggers’ are gays.” Rustin, being so much older than Naegle, wanted to protect him legally for inheritance purposes. But “gay marriage” was almost unheard of, and any kind of legal status like domestic partnerships for legal couples was many years away. So Rustin, ever the creative problem solver when it came to outwitting discrimination, adopted Naegle as his son. …

In 1986, just a year before he died, Rustin gave a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in which he exhorted gay people to “recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”

Previous Dish on Rustin here, here and here.