An unspoken hero, pioneer Bayard Rustin was a Black Civil Rights legend, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and a proud gay man.
None of which unfortunately has been shared with the public-at-large in the past. But as the years roll on and the LGBTQI community becomes increasingly more accepted, the legendary stories of this great gay man finally get to see the light of day.
Don’t get us wrong, Mr. Rustin’s history as a pivotal member of the Civil Rights Movement has been talked about, and his sexual orientation has been mentioned throughout the decades since his historic existence but nothing as eyeopening as it has been in recent years.
Fortunately, the Civil Rights legend’s journey to self-acceptance didn’t take as long as it has for society, in general, to have accepted him. Rustin realized his sexual orientation well before he became an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement.
It was as an all-star high school athlete that the legendary Rustin came to terms with his sexuality. From that point on his will to accept himself and the unconditional love from his adoring grandmother led him to greatness, not to say it didn’t interfere with his civil rights work.
Nonetheless, the fearless Rustin stood proudly as a black gay man charged with coordinating the 1963 March on Washington — a moment forever marked in history for its Civil Rights justice stance and Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that effectively helped push the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Rustin’s need to wear his gayness on his sleeve stemmed back to a bus ride in 1947 during the times of the segregated South. In a never-before-heard 1986 interview recording between the black crusader and a Washington Blade reporter, shared on the podcast Making Gay History, Rustin communicates his coming out
When confronted with a teachable moment directed at a young white child who was told by their mother not to touch a n**** when the child innocently tugged on Rustin’s necktie as he walked to the rear of the bus, the enlighted Rustin realized he needed to speak up at that moment in protest, which shortly thereafter compelled him to speak out about his sexuality.
At marker 14:55 in the interview recording Rustin explains to reporter Peg Byron that he made a decision at that moment not to go sit quietly in the back of the bus but rather show that child, who was so innocent to race relations that they were willing to play with him, that blacks don’t want to sit at the rear of the bus.
“Now, it occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me. And that in the long run, the only way I could be a free whole person was to face the shit.”
That pivotal moment in Rustin’s life set the stage for who he became as a man. Through his strong will and love for others, he persevered above the odds during a time when both blacks and gays were shunned in virtually every corner of America.
To no surprise, the nonviolent activist had his lows and highs like when the 10 leaders (a prominent Jew, Catholic, Protestant, and Trade Union Movement leader along with 6 black civil rights leaders) of the March on Washington spoke in one voice through the March Founder A. Philip Randolph against anti-gay attacks on Rustin by Congressman Strom Thurmond.
Or the low moment when he was asked to no longer work alongside Dr. King in 1962 after 8 years when an exploratory committee was tasked to determine whether his openness about his sexual orientation was damaging to Dr. King’s reputation
Regardless of Rustin’s powerful force as a human rights activist, all his work (inspiration of the Freedom Riders, inspiration to Dr. King’s nonviolent stance, coordinator of the March on Washington and many more) has been hidden from the public for so long because of his gay pride.
However, everyone has a chance to learn all about Rustin thanks to his beloved life partner Walter Naegle who till this day still lives in the Chelsea, New York home the couple shared together. It was Neagle who provided the Washington Blade interview recording to the Making Gay History podcast.
Neagle spent a decade with the love of his life before Rustin passed away at the age of 75 on August 24, 1987. To make sure Neagle was protected well beyond his passing, Rustin became Neagle’s adopted father, the only way gays could legally show unity during the days when marriage equality was virtually unheard of, much less a realm of
Neagle keeps the late Rustin’s history alive through the recorded interview sessions he personally captured of Rustin’s meetings with reporters. Adding to that are the many historical belongings he’s held onto and cherished of his beloved partner, all of which can be seen throughout their home and in other select locations.
Rewardingly with the changing of time Neagle was bestowed with a great honor when President Barack Obama invited him to the White House in 2013. The late Rustin was finally being recognized with a grand gesture as one of the recipients of the United States most prestigious civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Neagle was the one to accept it on his late partner’s behalf exactly 50 years later after the March on Washington took place.
Bayard Rustin was a proud black gay man of valor and strength. Not only did he stand against black injustice during the dangerous times of segregation and unrest but he also steadfast against homophobia. When being out and proud was unthinkable the brave Rustin spoke publicly for the New York State’s Gay Right Bill in 1986 among many other LGBTQI activist work.
Today, Rustin’s humility and altruistic nature
The Rustin Fund is a global initiative that works to provide links to LGBTQI activists and organizations in developing economies so that they can financially support their endeavors of social change and thus social justice. Some of their current campaigns are the Thai Transgender Alliance and Alternatives Cameroun. Check out their other campaigns at www.rustinfund.org.
It’s always great to learn the history of your very own community, and Bayard Rustin History is a remarkable story that represents how one man can uplift two marginalized communities with compassion and love.
A special thanks to the Creator and Host, Eric Marcus, of Making Gay History. It is through his reporting and his Making Gay History podcast show that we were able to obtain the never-heard-before Rustin and Washington Blade interview as well as images and information on Rustin’s personal life.
Click here to visit the Making Gay History Bayard Rustin podcast session. There you’ll find an assortment of young to grown photos of Mr. Rustin as well as some photos of Mr. Naegle and a wealth of links to many great stories, videos, and documentaries representative of Mr. Rustin’s life.