Bayard Rustin isn’t a household name, but his contributions to the civil rights movement rival those of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin organized the March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. A confidante and advisor to King, he introduced the civil rights leader to the principles of pacifism. While Rustin’s race, sexual orientation and radical politics marginalized him during the civil rights movement, in death he’s emerged as an icon to blacks, gays and progressives.
A Young Activist
Bayard Rustin was born to Florence Rustin, a teen mother of Caribbean ancestry, and an absentee father on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Penn. His grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin, helped raise him. They taught him the importance of equality, in part, by teaching him the Quaker faith, according to the book Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen. Even as a young man, Rustin exhibited a strong sense of self, coming out as gay and engaging in activism. A high school football player, he reportedly demonstrated against the local restaurant that served food to his white teammates but refused to serve him.
When he moved to New York in his mid-twenties, Rustin had already studied at the historically black colleges Wilberforce University and Cheney State Teachers College. In the Empire State, he enrolled at City College of New York and joined the Young Communist League, ultimately dropping out when the party asked him not to push for racial desegregation in the military.
His activism made him an FBI target.
Undeterred, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which spawned the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. As an activist with the group, he spoke about civil rights issues nationwide and served more than two years in prison for being a “draft dodger” during World War II.
After his stint in prison, Rustin participated in CORE’s 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, described as a predecessor to the Freedom Rides, because it challenged racial segregation in interstate travel. The move led to