Bayard Rustin was the brains behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
When the late civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin was pardoned by the California governor this past February for a 1953 conviction levied against him for being gay, his surviving partner, Walter Naegle, said he believed it caused Rustin pain to have to subsume his gay identity to remain central to the push for Black equality.
That’s how Rustin’s life of activism played out. He was a giant in the modern Civil Rights Movement. His devotion to Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifist worldview helped convince the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to adopt nonviolence, and Rustin was a central participant in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, an early incarnation of the Freedom Rides. But between activism stints, he was repeatedly caught in the web of the criminal justice system or sidelined by fellow activists for his insistence on being open about his sexual identity.
While clear about who he was and unapologetic about how he lived his life, it wasn’t until the end of his life, in the 1980s, that Rustin actively advocated for LGBTQ+ rights.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s set the stage for many other movements for social justice, including LGBTQ+ rights. The Stonewall riots of 1969, after all, were led by Black trans women. But while we’re still tempted today to talk about the fights for Black lives and queer rights as if they exist in mutually exclusive vacuums, the truth is they’re deeply interlinked and always have been.
While we’re still tempted today to talk about the fights for Black lives and queer rights as if they exist in mutually exclusive vacuums, the truth is they’re deeply interlinked and always have been.
As thousands of people again descended on the nation’s capital this Aug. 28 to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Black LGBTQ+ activists carried with us the legacy of Rustin, a principal organizer of the 1963 march who was denied credit for his work by prominent Black organizations at the time.
As we continue fighting against the increasing violence faced by our Black trans siblings and against police brutality that disproportionately harms people of color, it behooves us to remember that this is one fight, and that it belongs to all of us, and always has.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many LGBTQ+ Black people participated in the Civil Rights Movement, but none were as well-known as Rustin. In 1955, he was a close associate of A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and co-founder of the original intersectional organization, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Dispatched to help King with the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin soon became one of his closest advisers. Their relationship was strained when King, under pressure from homophobic elements in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), agreed to distance himself from Rustin.
It was Rustin who worked with King and other stakeholders to expand the march from being just for jobs to being for jobs and freedom.
Still, when Randolph revived his idea for a March on Washington — first floated, and then tabled, in 1941 and originally just focused on jobs — Rustin was key to forging the coalition of groups that came together so that on Aug. 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people converged on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It was Rustin who traveled to Alabama to meet with King, despite a rift between them. It was Rustin who worked with King and other stakeholders to expand the march from being just for jobs to being for jobs and freedom.
At one point, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., distanced himself from Bayard Rustin because of outside pressures.
Still, Rustin wasn’t allowed to officially hold the “director” title because NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins’ objected to his “open homosexuality.” Though the 1963 March on Washington wouldn’t have attained such historic turnout without Rustin’s efforts, he never received proper credit for his tremendous effort. Rustin was required to fight dual battles — that of being Black and of the LGBTQ+ community. Nevertheless, he didn’t allow slights to keep him from using his talents to advance the movement for civil rights that can be enjoyed by all Black people.
The modern Civil Rights Movement awakened America’s consciousness to the unfulfilled promises of the nation and set the stage for other movements, including the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. As Bayard Rustin showed, the twin struggles of race equity and sexual identity, gender orientation and gender expression, cannot be disentangled, and they shouldn’t be. We need to look to the past with clear eyes, in order to truly see our way forward.
Bayard Rustin at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the nation's largest demonstration at that time.
By David J. Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.