Who Designed the March on Washington?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: This gay man was kept in the closet of the civil rights movement.

Bayard Rustin (left) speaking to administrative chairman Cleveland Robinson (right) (Wikimedia Commons)
Bayard Rustin (left) speaking to administrative chairman Cleveland Robinson (right) (Wikimedia Commons)

A Changing Movement

While launching the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1964, Rustin found himself embroiled in Democratic politics at the 1964 convention in Atlantic City, where he cautioned delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to back down when President Johnson made a deal to seat the state’s conservative wing. Rustin tried articulating his views in a 1965 essay in Harper’s magazine called “From Protest to Politics,” but the damage was done. “You’re a traitor, Bayard!” Mandy Samstein of the SNCC had shouted at the convention, according to Taylor Branch in The King Years.

As memories of the march faded and the movement entered its more militant phase, Rustin’s coziness with the Democratic Party power structure (he was even spotted riding in Hubert Humphrey’s limousine) angered proponents of black power. He also alienated antiwar activists when he failed to call for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and cautioned Dr. King against speaking out in his famous speech attacking the war delivered at Riverside Church. Increasingly, it seemed, Rustin took (or refrained from taking) positions that put him at odds with a movement he had once so fundamentally helped to shape.

International Activism and Gay Rights

Despite tensions with other black activists, Rustin remained engaged in the struggle for justice. When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., Rustin participated in the memorial march and demanded economic justice for sanitation workers. At the same time, he expanded his focus on international causes, including offering support to Israel, promoting free elections in Central America and Africa and aiding refugees as vice chairman of the International Rescue Committee.

During the 1980s, Rustin also opened up publicly about the sexuality he had “sublimated” since the 1950s. (This coincided with his falling in love with Walter Naegle, now serving as executor and archivist of Rustin’s estate.) In a 1987 interview with the Village Voice, Rustin said, “I think the gay community has a moral obligation … to do whatever is possible to encourage more and more gays to come out of the closet.” For his part, he worked to bring the AIDS crisis to the attention of the NAACP, once predicting, “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”

Death and Legacy

Bayard Rustin died on August 24, 1987, just four days shy of the march’s 24th anniversary. Since then, he has been the subject of several biographies by Jervis Anderson, Daniel Levine, John D’Emilio and Jerald Podar. Thankfully, we also now have the collection of his writings edited by Devon Carbado and Donald Weise. Each, in addition to the documentary Brother Outsider from producers Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, proved valuable in my research. I myself have been thinking about Rustin for more than 40 years, including in a piece I wrote for the New Yorker exploring the controversy over a gay rights demonstration planned for what was then the 30th anniversary of the march in 1993.

It is noteworthy that it was President Kennedy who made awarding the Medal of Freedom a presidential privilege in February 1963, the same year as the march. Later this year, Barack Obama, the president whose elections the march made possible — and the first to support publicly gay marriage — will make things right by awarding it to Rustin. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke sang for the first time in a recording studio in 1963. I, like many, am glad that change is now coming for Rustin in 2013, not only because it is the march’s golden anniversary but because it is also the year the Supreme Court ended discrimination against gay couples seeking federal benefits while protecting their right to marry in California, the very state where in 1953 Rustin’s fate was sealed as the black leader destined to be “closeted” behind the scenes.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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