Bayard Rustin literally wrote the book on successful protest organization. When an unbelievable 200,000 people participated in the civil rights March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, it was Bayard Rustin who’d planned EVERYTHING from advertising to uniting feuding speakers, and from barring violent racists to bathroom logistics. And there’s a reason that he’s been largely left out of history.
Bayard Rustin was openly gay.
If there was a person who most typified The Resistance of the time, it could be argued that it was him. In 1944, he was sentenced to 2 years in prison for refusing his World War II draft order due to his deep-seated, strictly non-violent Quaker faith. In 1953, he spent 60 days in jail for homosexuality (“sex perversion” was the specific charge). And 13 years before Rosa Parks had, Bayard was one of the first to refuse to give up his seat to white people on a Mississippi bus, a monumental action that led to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition and his role as a key advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King.
But strangely enough, Bayard found himself fighting twice as hard against unlikely enemies. Because he was gay, both black and white people tried to blackmail him in efforts to discredit him. His skills were so revolutionary & so effective that white enemies like Senator Strom Thurmond knew that removing him from the movement would be devastating. The power he held within the movement was so great that heterosexual blacks didn’t feel that a gay man should have it & sought it for themselves.
But Bayard didn’t let that stop him one way or another. He knew that he was fighting at the intersection of two historic causes, both of which were too significant to be undermined. His partner, Walter Naegle recounted that “Bayard was willing to stand up for people — even though they had mistreated him — it was a matter of principle.”
After the Civil Rights and Voter Rights Acts were passed in the 60s, he was actively involved in the Gay Rights Movement, but felt compelled to take up a third cause. He became a vocal proponent of Workers’ Rights, demanding increased minimum wage (which was only a ridiculous 75 cents at the time) and federal programs to train & place unemployed workers.
Over the course of his life, Bayard successfully advanced the efforts of three of the most significant modern rights movements in the world, and few people recognized him. In 2013, just two months after the 50th anniversary of what Dr. King called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in American history,” President Obama posthumously awarded Bayard with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor that Walter touchingly accepted on his behalf.