Rustin debates Malcolm X
Bayard Rustin was born in 1912, the illegitimate son of a West Indies immigrant. Raised by his grandfather in Pennsylvania, Rustin began his activism in high school. While traveling with his high school football team, Rustin was refused service at a segregated restaurant. “I sat there quite a long time and was eventually thrown out bodily. From that point on, I had the conviction that I would not accept segregation.”
Bayard Rustin had an angelic voice which won him a scholarship to college. After studying at the London School of Economics, Rustin attained a British inflection which added a stateliness to his speech, helping him win debates against Malcolm X. Rustin attended City College of New York, where he joined the Young Communist League and organized his first protest to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine black men who were accused of raping two white women. While attending college in New York, Rustin began singing at the Café Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, where he was able to meet and socialize with gay men.
A lifelong pacifist, Rustin abandoned the Communist party after Stalin ordered them to convince the United States to join the effort against Hitler. Rustin traveled to California to protest the internment of Japanese during World War II and was arrested and beaten in 1942 after refusing to leave his second row seat on a bus traveling between Louisville and Nashville.
Rustin was a founder of the Congress for Racial Equality.
In 1944, Rustin was imprisoned for refusing to fight in World War II and led protests against the segregated cafeteria. Upon his release he organized the first of the Freedom Rides to protest segregation on busses and served 22 days in a North Carolina chain gang.
Rustin went to India in 1948 in order to study non-violent resistance under Gandhi.
In 1953, Rustin was arrested in California for sodomy and officially charged with “sexual perversion,” for which he served 60 days in jail. After his arrest he told the Village Voice that, ”There was considerable prejudice amongst a number of people I worked with, although they would not admit it.”
Rustin was called, “Mr. March,” by A. Philip Randolph, the famous labor leader, and was highly valued for his organizational skill. It was for this reason that he was chosen to lead the the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where 300,000 stood before Martin Luther King Jr. to hear the, “I Have A Dream,” speech.
Rustin’s pacifism was castigated by many in the black protest movement. During the 1964 riots in Harlem he went into the street to try to stop the arson and had bottles thrown at him.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was friends with Rustin. According to one of Marshall’s law clerks, the friendship was key to his dissent from Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 case (now overturned) which said that gays do not have a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy thereby upholding sodomy statues.
Later that year Rustin Gave a speech entitled, “The New Niggers Are Gays.” “Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people”
Rustin died in 1987, at the age of 75 following a surgery for a perforated appendix.
Gay civil rights leaders