When Bayard Rustin is remembered at all, he’s remembered as the architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
But the gay, pacifist radical — the subject of a new biographical drama that’s out on Netflix this week — was more than “Mr. March on Washington,” as he was affectionately called. His fierce commitment to human rights and dignity continues to shape the battle for equality today.
“I’m a Black gay man. Rustin’s legacy has been vital to how I see myself in the world and the difference that I can make,” says Leslie Hall, the director of the historically Black colleges and universities program at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “His work also reminds me that we still have a lot to do — not just for Black gay men but for Black LGBTQ people generally.”
In June, the HRC declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ Americans. This was a response to the unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation being introduced in Republican-controlled statehouses, and came after the group’s announcement last year that transgender Americans, particularly Black transgender women, are facing an “epidemic of violence.”
Understanding the enduring resonance of Rustin’s work requires going back to the beginning.
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912, Rustin was one of a dozen children raised by his grandparents. According to some histories, his embrace of nonviolence and civil rights can be traced back to his grandmother, Julia Davis. She was a Quaker and a loyal member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This devotion meant that Black luminaries — Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois — figured prominently in Rustin’s orbit as a child.
Rustin moved to New York City around 1937 and enrolled at the City College of New York. During this period, he joined the Young Communist League, struck by the group’s emphasis on advancing racial justice. But he left the organization in 1941. He was disillusioned by its choice to reverse its anti-war stance after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
This was a crucial time for Rustin. In 1941, he started to work with A. Philip Randolph, a labor rights giant, on the March on Washington Movement, a plan to marshal Black Americans in the capital and protest the segregation afflicting the U.S. military. It never came to pass. Days before the march, President Franklin Roosevelt, spooked by the looming disruption, issued Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in the defense industry.
Though the rally was called off, Rustin and Randolph went on to become not only lifelong friends — but steadfast political allies.
Strains within the movement
Notably, this decade was when Rustin, motivated by a racist incident, determined that he could no longer remain in the closet. In a 1986 interview, he recalled walking toward the back of a bus in the South in 1947. When a white child pulled Rustin’s tie, the child’s mother warned, “Don’t touch a [N-word].” Rustin had an epiphany; he knew that he couldn’t go to the back of the bus.
“I said, I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, but I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that Blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that,” Rustin told the journalist Peg Byron.
“It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare [my] homosexuality, because if I didn’t, I was a part of the prejudice,” he added. “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.”
Rustin’s sexuality was weaponized against him again and again. For instance, he was dismissed from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization that pushes for nonviolence in the face of conflict, after his 1953 conviction in Pasadena, California, for having consensual sex with men. (California Gov. Gavin Newsom posthumously pardoned Rustin in 2020.) And he was kicked out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1962, once Martin Luther King Jr. became fearful of how Rustin’s sexuality might affect the organization’s public image.
“I don’t think that people realize how difficult it was to be Black and gay in those times,” Hall says. “Some Black folks pushed you to the back of the crowd because you were gay. And white folks certainly weren’t trying to put you on the front page of anything.”
The writer James Baldwin noted that King “lost much moral credit … in the eyes of the young” after he betrayed the man who had been his cherished mentor.
It was thanks to the insistence of Randolph that King and other activists allowed Rustin to organize that watershed 1963 event — the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And when South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, an arch-segregationist, pilloried Rustin on the floor of Congress weeks before the rally, King stood by his friend and peerless tactician.
The march is widely viewed as having fueled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — both crown jewels of the fight for Black liberation that defined the mid-20th century.
Later political battles
More and more in the years following the gathering, Rustin found himself crossing swords with certain quarters of the freedom struggle.
In 1964, for instance, tensions flared between the West Chester pacifist and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, formed to oppose the state branch of the Democratic Party, which in that era excluded Black residents. Some MFDP members knocked Rustin for his coziness with establishment Democratic Party figures such as President Lyndon Johnson.
Rustin also was on the receiving end of criticism in 1967 for trying to persuade King not to deliver an anti-war speech at New York City’s Riverside Church. In his address, the reverend declared, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
Still, Rustin’s commitment to, in his words, “people in trouble” never wavered. Walter Naegle, Rustin’s surviving partner, tells Capital B that what tends to get overlooked when we talk about Rustin’s activism, especially during the final decades of his life, is the fact that he was a universalist. He stood up for the rights and dignity of everyone.
Beginning in the latter half of the 1960s, Rustin became active in the Soviet Jewry Movement, lobbying for Jews’ right to leave the Soviet Union in order to flee state persecution. And in the 1980s, he embraced gay rights activism. He was encouraged by his relationship with Naegle. The two met in 1977, and in 1982, around five years before his death at the age of 75 on Aug. 24, 1987, Rustin adopted Naegle. Prior to marriage equality, same-sex couples used adoption to make sure that their partners were their legal heirs.
“Because the period from Montgomery to Memphis was so focused on the rights of Black Americans, it’s easy to think that [Rustin] was interested only in the rights of Black Americans. But that wasn’t true,” Naegle explains. “[Rustin] was somebody people could call on to issue a statement or organize around a particular problem to protect the rights of this group or that group. He wanted to build a community that would benefit all people.”
Today, because of the complexity of Rustin’s political vision — his willingness to spar with his peers — some contend that we ought to remember the activist “for his ideas, not his identity.” But such thinking feels a little bit rash. It downplays how Rustin’s ideas were shaped by his identity, and how these experiences ultimately drove him to reach for solidarity spanning numerous categories of marginalization.
“Rustin is the goalpost, really,” Hall says. “I always stress to student leaders I work with what he was able to do as a Black gay man at a time when simply being himself was dangerous. He showed how you can turn your marginalization into something incredibly powerful.”