Black History Month: The Man Behind Martin Luther King, Jr

Left to Right: Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Aaron E. Henry, and Bayard Rustin

We all know Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the civil rights movement and who is considered to be one of its founders. But history has almost forgotten a key player in this battle. He was an openly gay man who helped organize racial justice movements including The Great March on Washington. His name was Bayard Rustin. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1912, Rustin was raised by his Quaker grandparents. Unlike many people at the time, they supported his sexuality. He joined the communist party in 1937 when he studied at the College of New York, but he soon left as their focus shifted to promoting the Soviet Union instead of racial equality. This part of his life would have a huge impact on his career and social status, as many were wary of this fact. Rustin was a pacifist and was strongly against the Second World War and refused to register for the draft, ultimately leading to him being arrested in 1944. This would not be the first time he would be charged, as Rustin’s sexuality was often used against him. These types of incidents would lead to him being fired from the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a socialist group that promoted equality for all, except for gay people. This would lead him to meet Martin Luther King, Jr., through his friend Philip Randolph. Although Rustin was a trusted advisor for King around the 1950s, many considered him a liability. King started to distance himself from Rustin as threats from Adam Clayton Powell arose. It wouldn’t be until 1963 that Rustin would rejoin the movement. While threats were still made, they were quickly dismissed as King and other members started to openly support Rustin. Unfortunately, a year before the March on Washington, a decision was made to make Randolph lead instead of Rustin. This did not stop his activism for both racial equality and gay rights in the 1980s. In a later interview, Rustin said that “… it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice.” He, unfortunately, died on August 24, 1987. Twenty-six years later, in 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his fight for racial equality.

See this video for more information about Bayard Rustin.