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Gay, Black and Proud: The Legacy of Bayard Rustin

“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. All we have is our bodies. We need to tuck them, tuck them, tuck them, in places so that the wheels don’t turn.”

These are the words of Bayard Rustin. Though largely uncredited during his lifetime, Rustin was one of the leading architects of the civil rights movement in the United States and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most-trusted advisors.

It was Rustin, schooled in the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, who convinced King that nonviolent protest was the way to go. It was also Rustin who organized the historic 1963 March on Washington where 250,000 people gathered to hear King give his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Years before, Rustin took part in 1947’s Journey of Reconciliation to fight interstate racial segregation on buses in the South, which was one of the first Freedom Rides; and he lent support to the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama in 1956. That’s how he first met King.

So why isn’t Bayard Rustin a household name? Rustin was an openly gay man.

“Dr. King didn’t have a problem with him being gay,” Rustin’s longtime partner Walter Naegle told Great Big Story in 2018. “He needed Bayard. Bayard was doing things for the movement that nobody else could do.”

But Rustin lived in an era when most people were simply not accepting of a gay man no matter how brilliant he was. Forced to stay mostly behind-the-scenes, Rustin fell into the role of an unsung hero doing the critical strategizing and organizing required to mount a serious and sustained fight for human rights.

After Rustin died in New York City in 1987 at the age of 75, the Bayard Rustin Fund was organized in his memory. “It was designed to get Bayard into the history books,” according to Naegle. “He didn’t have the visibility of a Dr. King or of a Malcolm X. He would want to be remembered for being a person that played a great role in making social change to this country.”

Slowly but surely, Rustin’s contributions have been recognized over the years. President Barack Obama honored Rustin with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. At a ceremony marking the occasion, President Obama praised Bayard’s “unshakable optimism, nerves of steel, and, most importantly, a faith that if the cause is just and people are organized, nothing can stand in our way.”

And, more recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom posthumously pardoned Rustin on February 5, 2020. His pardon is the first in a new clemency initiative designed to clear the names of LGBTQ people unfairly targeted because of their sexual orientation.

Rustin had been arrested in Pasadena, California, in 1953 on a morals charge for having sex with men in a parked car. He spent 50 days in jail and had to register as a sex offender even though it was consensual.

Governor Newsom called Rustin’s conviction “part of a long and reprehensible history of criminal prohibitions on the very existence of LGBTQ people and their intimate associations and relationships.”

This Great Big Story was made possible by P&G.

This story is a part of our new PROUD channel, celebrating stories of the LGBTQ+ community.

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New York City, New York

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