• Savannah Zachary

Meet Bayard Rustin, the Openly Gay Black Man Who Organized The March on Washington

Hey, guys! Happy Black History Month! This week’s song of the week is “World We Created” by Giveon. If you haven’t heard of Giveon, please look into his music. It’s super relaxing, and if you’re looking for something to just stare at the ceiling to, his music is the embodiment of that floating on a cloud type of feeling. Now on to Bayard Rustin.

A few weeks ago on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I was reading up on the March on Washington and was shocked to find out that one of the most well-known Civil Rights movements in the United States was organized by an openly gay, black man. I urge you to do personal research on black history because the way many kids are taught the topic in school leaves out a lot of crucial information and important people. The same theme occurs with queer history, which often is not taught at all. Countless black historical figures who made major strides in the fight for equal rights remain in the shadows, so today I thought I would highlight Bayard Rustin.

Born in 1912, Rustin grew up in Pennsylvania with his mother. After studying for five years but never obtaining a degree, Rustin traveled widely and had several different jobs. Prior to meeting Dr. King in 1965, Bayard was caught having sex in a car with another gay man and was arrested for it in 1963. He faced a charge of “vagrancy,” 50 days of jail time and was forced to register as a sex offender. At the time, several laws that targeted queer people for just existing were not at all uncommon in California. This unjust arrest forced Rustin to be publicly outed, and he just recently got posthumously pardoned by Governor Gavin Newsome in February of last year.

He later went on to organize several protests throughout the height of the Civil Rights Movement outside of the March on Washington, and he fought for both queer and black individuals’ lives during his entire life. After moving to Alabama, which had some of the strongest attitudes towards the support of segregation, he served as a close adviser to Dr. King. Rustin actually introduced King to Gandhi’s teachings, which would later go on to deeply inspire King. However, his relationship with Dr. King suffered when Representative Adam Clayton Powell threatened to tell the press that King and Rustin were lovers, if they did not cancel the protest they were organizing outside of Los Angeles. King called off the protest and put distance between Rustin and himself for a short while.

Rustin organized the entire March on Washington only two months prior to the historic event. He faced backlash for being chosen as the main organizer of the March on Washington because of his sexuality but nevertheless pushed past the people trying to downplay his success. Rustin planned for doctors, bathrooms, food, routes and first aid stations in an attempt to allow the protest to move smoothly. Like Dr. King, Bayard also believed in the power of peaceful protest but still prepared for civil unrest, which thankfully did not occur (only four arrests were made). Without Rustin, the March on Washington would not have been as effective towards the advancement of racial equality in the United States.

Bayard Rustin’s legacy remains strong as more and more people learn his story. This reminds us that we must stop separating the histories of how minority groups fought for equal rights from each other. Both black and queer history overlap and impact each other, and many people forget that these major social movements happened around the same time. Learning and emphasizing the context of these events, especially the fact that they did not happen that long ago, will help us appreciate and celebrate the actions of those who came before us that fought for equal legislation for minority groups. Of course, there is much more to be done regarding racial and LGBTQ+ equality, but this prominent historical black and queer figure laid the foundation for the progress we are slowly making today.