Bayard Rustin was a pioneering civil rights leader, whose contributions are all too often forgotten because of his sexuality. Rustin was instrumental in building support for Martin Luther King, Jr. As a Quaker, he strongly believed in nonviolence, and heavily influenced King’s own beliefs in this regard.

Rustin helped organize the first Freedom Ride since a Supreme Court ruling banning racial discrimination in interstate travel. He, and others he traveled with, were imprisoned several times during their journey.

Bayard Rustin
New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c18982

His experience with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) no doubt served him well when he helped Martin Luther King, Jr. organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the March on Washington.

Despite his crucial work, Rustin was often relegated to the shadows of the movement because he openly identified as a gay man following a 1953 conviction for “sex perversion” with another man. This made him a target of both segregationists hoping to discredit the movement and conservative black leaders who were uncomfortable with his sexuality.

Later in his life, Rustin began to focus on the economic issues that working class and unemployed black individuals faced. As founder and director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, he helped create rapport with formerly majority-white unions, and assisted the AFL-CIO’s advocacy for economic justice and civil rights.

In the 1980s, Rustin turned his attention to the struggle for gay rights. He advocated for New York State’s Gay Rights Bill, stating that, as gay people were the most vulnerable members of society at the time, they were the best way to judge how equal the U.S. really was.

Rustin died in 1987, but his accomplishments lived on.

In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He presented the award to Walter Naegle, who had been Rustin’s partner for the decade prior to his death. A White House press release on the subject stated, “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”

Learn more on Bayard Rustin’s Wikipedia page here.