Bayard Rustin’s role in the Civil Right Movement has often been overlooked. Rustin remained mostly in the background of the movement, solely an adviser to others, such as Martin Luther King Jr. The PBS documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin delves into Rustin’s experience as a Civil Rights activist and how that was affected by his outward homosexuality.
In 1942, Rustin was on a bus going from Louisville to Nashville when he was asked by drivers to move from his seat in the second row to the back of the bus. Rustin refused, and the police intervened, beating and arresting Rustin for refusing to move his seat.
Rustin was famously an advocate for nonviolence. “The man who believes in nonviolence is prepared to be harmed; to be crushed. But he will never crush others,” Rustin said. When Rustin became an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and gave advice on how to run a nonviolent campaign, he noted that King was young and inexperienced in such a feat.
In 1953, Rustin was arrested on a morals charge for publicly engaging in homosexual activity. He went to jail for 60 days and was referred to as a pervert. However, he continued to live his life as an openly gay man regardless.
Davis Platt, Rustin’s first major partner at the beginning of his career, recalled the difficulties of keeping in touch while Rustin was in jail.
“We were determined to stay in touch with each other. There’s no question that I saw him as my lover and he saw me as his lover. It was clear that our letters could not explain clearly what we felt, so we developed a code. I would write about myself as a woman,” Platt said.
Platt, along with many others, always admired Rustin’s upbeat and brilliant personality. Platt described him as having “an intelligence, such a love of life, such a sense of humor, really a lot of wisdom. And he had absolutely no shame about being gay.” However, Platt noted that when they lived together and walked down the street, although they never met any hostility, everyone would stare.
Rustin went on to work for A.J. Muste, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement. Muste served as a mentor to Rustin, and Rustin claimed that he never made a difficult decision without speaking with Muste about it first. Eventually, Muste voiced his opposition against the fact that Rusin was gay. He put pressure on Rustin to give up his homosexuality, seeing it as a threat to his effectiveness. He tried to break up Rustin and Platt, and pushed Rustin to deny all aspects of his homosexuality.
Rustin was sent to a therapist in hopes of better understanding being homosexual. He was frustrated by the fact that society couldn’t deal with it. The therapist advised him to quiet down about his homosexuality because it was obviously upsetting others and wasn’t a central part of the work he was doing.
As Rustin’s work with Dr. King furthered, he continued to run into obstacles regarding his sexuality. “Adam Clayton Powell didn’t want blacks picketing the democratic convention,” Rustin said. “He want so far as to warn King that if King did not withdraw his support from that demonstration, he would go to the press and say there was a sexual affair going on between me and King. Martin was so terrified by this threat that he decided he would get rid of me.”
Despite the fact that so many were against Rustin being gay, his path on the Civil Rights journey hardly faltered. The need for a mass gathering in Washington began to emerge, and A. Phillip Randolph, whom Rustin had previously worked with, advocated Rustin as the local choice to organize it. Rustin was a critical contributor in the organization of the March on Washington, and after the March’s success, appeared on the cover of Life magazine alongside Randolph as the leaders of the March.
“I don’t think without Bayard Rustin the modern civil rights movement would have won half of the victories that it won.”
Rustin’s courage and success as a person rests hugely on the fact that he encountered endless criticisms about his sexuality, yet for years he wore it proudly on his sleeve, and endorsed it brazenly as part of who he was. He lived during a time where he not only had to contest racism, but homophobia as well. Rustin countered both of those disparagements with an undying determination to make America a better country by instilling equality in its citizens. He stood firmly by his beliefs and made historic accomplishments as a result.
Rustin began dating partner Walter Naegle in 1977. The two were together ten years before Rustin passed away in 1987 due to a perforated appendix. Naegle explained: “In the last years of his life he was really returning to where he had started: the belief that we are all members of one human family.”
“Twenty five, thirty years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian. We are all one. And if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.”