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Remembering Bayard Rustin on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 01/20/14
Last updated on: 01/20/14
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As we celebrate the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we fittingly remember the contributions of Bayard Rustin to the civil rights movement. One of the key African-American civil rights activists of the twentieth century, Rustin and his legacy were long obscured because of embarrassment over his homosexuality and early involvement in the Communist Party.

Although Rustin's activism dates back to 1941, when he worked closely with J. Philip Randolph to organize the 1941 African-American March on Washington, he is best known for his close association with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s. Together, they created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which they hoped to use to further the nonviolent civil rights protest movement in the South.

Rustin was one of the most brilliant tacticians of the civil rights movement, but his openness as a homosexual, and an arrest in California in 1953 for "lewd conduct," as well as his early membership in the Communist Party, made many see him as a liability. Nevertheless, he eventually became one of Dr. Martin Luther King's closest advisors. Arguably, it was Rustin who most deeply influenced King's understanding and use of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Adversaries of Dr. King within the civil rights movement were prepared to use Rustin's homosexuality against him. For example, in 1960, as Rustin prepared to help King lead protests outside of the Democractic National Convention, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell pressured King to call off the protest, threatening to accuse Rustin and King of having a homosexual affair.

King gave in to Powell, and Rustin resigned from King's staff. He was devastated by Powell's ruthlessness and by what he saw as King's betrayal, though he continued to advise the civil rights leader.

In 1963, however, Rustin was asked to organize the highly visible 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. It was at this venue that King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Although segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond attempted to discredit the 1963 march because it was organized by a "communist, draft dodger, and homosexual," Rustin remained active in the movement. He worked tirelessly to organize a number of successful protests, actions, and demonstrations.

In spite of his successes, however, Rustin never quite overcame the damage that had been done to his reputation, and in the late 1970s he was marginalized by the militants who assumed control of the civil rights movement.

On November 20, 2013, in a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House, President Obama awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. It was accepted by Walter Naegle, who was Rustin's life partner.

In his later years, Rustin continued to fight for social justice. He protested the Vietnam War and became active in the gay rights movement.

There is currently underway a compaign to pressure the United States Post Office to issue a postal stamp issued in Rustin's honor.

The official launch of the Bayard Rustin USA/National Stamp Campaign will be announced at NGLTF's 2014 Creating Change Conference in Houston from January 29 through February 2. The campaign is spearheaded by Naegle and San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, reported Thom Senzee in San Diego's LGBT Weekly.

In the clip below from Jeff Dupre's 1998 documentary Out of the Past, Rustin's role in the civil rights movement is discussed by both historians and fellow participants such as Congressman John Lewis.

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