Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)

Stage Name: Bay the Bae

Tucked away in NYC’s Harlem at W 130th and Lenox Ave was an office. And in that office, the magic of a movement happened: a movement that is known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his trailblazing “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Before he had a dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he had a “Team” to help make this happen. The leader of that team, from behind the scenes, was Bayard Rustin who was popularly known as Mr. March on Washington

Bay the Bae had a lifetime of interesting, innovative and empowering music, but what he didn’t have was Spotify. For today he does, and these are the tunes he wants you to listen to: 

It’s Pride Month, and Friday is Juneteenth, so we thought we’d highlight this man’s life who experienced prejudice and discrimation for both his sexuality and his skin color — but he didn’t let either factor stop him from pushing for justice. 

Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912. He didn’t know his father well, and his mother, Florence, was just 16 years old when she gave birth to him. From an early age, Bayard learned pacifist values from his grandparents’ Quaker household, and later on he’d adopt Gandhi’s nonviolent teachings as well as A. Philip Randolph’s socialist teachings. He dabbled in many activities as a boy, such as poetry and football. You know what they say: pacifism in the home, tackle ‘em in the dome. 

Bayard knew at a fairly young age that he preferred the company of men over ladies, and he never tried to hide these feelings. His grandmother supported him, telling him “I suppose that’s what you need to do,” when he came out to her. It was rare for members of the LGBTQ community to feel safe and unashamed of their sexuality in the early 1900s, but Bayard was open about who he was and did not let feelings of shame dictate the way he lived his life.

Bayard moved to the Big Apple in 1937, getting involved with singing, performing and, of course, communism. No college experience is complete without a quick dabble in Marxism. He didn’t stay long in the Young Communist League, however, because the group told him he had to stop doing silly, trivial things like protesting racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces. He had a new manifesto, and it was not a communist one. However, his dabbling placed him on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Continuing to fight for racial equality, Bayard took part in an early version of the Freedom Rides to test the Supreme Court 1946 ruling in Morgan v. Virginia, which decided that Virginia’s state law enforcing segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional. Two years later, he traveled to India to attend a world pacifist conference. “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” Bayard wrote. Just kidding. What he actually wrote was, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.” His childhood poetry journaling paid off.

Though Bayard was quickly becoming an important figure in the civil rights movement, the prevailing public feeling toward homosexuality kept him from reaching the level of fame that we assign to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X or Rosa Parks. In 1953, Bayard was arrested for “lewd conduct” and “vagrancy” for allegedly engaging in a sexual act with two white men in a car. Because of the negative press circling him, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist activism organization he’d been a part of for over 10 years, demanded he resign from the group.

Bayard put this behind him, and struck up a friendship with a like-minded nonviolent activist named Martin Luther King, Jr. Bayard traveled to Alabama to lend support during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and he had a hand in teaching Martin about Gandhi’s nonviolent values. The two men continued to plan protests and marches for civil rights, including a march at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles to call attention to the party’s lack of support for the Civil Rights Movement. The nation’s Democrats were not pleased about this negative publicity, so they sent prominent African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to LA to stop the protest in its tracks. To do so, he threatened to spread a rumor that Martin and Bayard were canoodling. Honestly, we wish that was the truth. But, alas, in a moment of weakness, Martin canceled the march and subsequently put more distance between him and Bayard. 

Bayard resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but a resignation was not the end for Rustin. Rather, in a way, a new beginning. A. Philip Randolph reached out to Rustin to discuss putting together a celebration to commemorate the centennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

The Emancipation Proclamation was signed two whole years before all enslaved people were free. Ole’ General Lee and the Confederates did not fall until April of 1865 (and June of 2020: so long statutes). News of freedom was not shared with those who were enslaved until a Major General from the Union Army by the name of Gordon Granger made it with his troops to Galveston, TX. He announced on June 19, 1865 that the war was over and those who were enslaved were free. This is what we celebrate on Juneteenth. But, freedom came with red tape. One hundred years later, while Rustin met with Randolph to prepare this centennial celebration, they were simultaneously fighting for their freedom against the systemic racism prominent in their lives. Sound familiar? 

They worked well together and proposed an idea of a march through Washington to Dr. King. He was hesitant at first, but events in Birmingham in 1963 shifted his perspective. He saw some protestors pushed to the ground by the power of a fire hose and others mangled by vicious dogs. Rustin packed up his bags and reunited with Dr. King in Alabama to put together a plan. They decided it will be a gathering that calls for freedom and jobs. Goals included a Civil Rights Bill that ended segregation in public places and schools; an Act that does not allow discrimination in the workplace; and a federal works program that would train and place unemployed workers.  

Bay the bae made preparations to unite civil organizations such as the National Urban League, the NAACP and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to name a few. Together, they and their followers would lead. However just as he got into his work flow, his personal rendezvouses were questioned…yet again. His homosexuality was a deciding factor in demoting him to Deputy because he was too risky to have as a public facing figure. A. Philip Randolph was named Director. Controversy around Rustin continued as cowardly people in charge, such as Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, attacked his communist past, his avoidance of the WWII draft, and his homosexuality. Bayard, though, went on and got that dirt off his shoulder as he had more important work to do than worry about a segregationist whose time was up: tick tock, sir (and not the app). 

With two months to put together all logistics for the March on Washington, this team was in for a lot of work and coordination. Marchers were coming from all over the country. They had to know where to go, how to get there, who to follow, where to meet, and how to leave at the end of the day. They needed places to use the bathroom. Speeches had to be reviewed and busses arranged. Sure enough, with Bayard Rustin’s dedication and oversight, the Organizing Manual No.2 was created and shared widely. It explained the why, the how, the where, the when, and every detail in between. By August 28, 1963, they and thousands of others were ready to take on Washington. As you know, it was an overwhelming success then and is admired to this day. Bayard Rustin even got the chance to show his face in front of the crowd and give a speech from the steps of the Lincoln, calling for the goals listed in the manual. 

Bayard Rustin made it onto the cover of the September 6, 1963 issue of Life Magazine. After a lifetime of being told he had to stay in the dark, he was finally brought into the light and publicly praised for his leadership, work, and tenacity to make the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom happen. Like many moments and movements in history, the march did not immediately change everything. President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act and Dr. King received the Nobel Prize in 1964. Who organized Martin’s trip logistics you ask? None other than Bayard Rustin. He marched in Dr. King’s funeral four years later. 

Photo courtesy of crdl.usg.edu

In the following years, Rustin continued to fight for justice and equality for the Black community. To him, the protest period was done and now it was time to take on the political sphere.  He became leader of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which worked for the integration of formerly all-White unions and encouraged unionization of Black workers. His legacy lives on to this present day. Had it not been for his manual and the logistical success of the March on Washington over fifty years ago, maybe DC, NYC, and other cities wouldn’t be as good at protesting as they are today. We’re talking food stations, water handouts, first aid tables and businesses with open doors and bathrooms for protestors to use. 

Bayard eventually met his partner Walter Naegle. Together they lived their lives in love and, of course, advocated for gay rights. Bayard was a fighter for social justice and equality for all up until his last days. He passed away at the age of 75 on August 24, 1987 in NYC.

Since then, so much has progressed and so much has paused. In 2013, Bayard Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Walter accepted his medal on his behalf. Two years later, same-sex marriage was legalized and just this week the Supreme Court moved to protect the LGBTQ community from workplace discrimination. This would have benefited Bayard greatly during his days of being seen as a liability. 

Bayard Rustin’s story of behind the scenes work that made a significant impact shows that you don’t always have to be a front line leader. Sometimes some of us are meant to do the logistical support work so others may stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and profess their dreams. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, and Bayard dedicated his life to making that dream come true. 

Words from Bayard himself:

“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”

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