Bayard Rustin and the March on Washington

The 1963 March on Washington.

Bayard Rustin, a central figure in the American Civil Rights movement, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17th, 1912. He grew up believing that Julia and Janifer Rustin were his parents, though as a teenager he discovered they were actually his grandparents. In fact, the woman whom he had always believed to be his sister, Florence Rustin, was really his mother. When he came to the realization that he was gay, his family continued to love and support him regardless of the negativity of the prevailing stances regarding homosexuality at that time. He would go on to attend two historically black universities. Namely, these were Wilberforce University, in Ohio, and Cheney University, in Pennsylvania. Bayard became involved in a number of civil rights movements and organizations at both institutions, even leaving the former for the latter due to being expelled for his involvement in a strike.

4. Career

In the early 1930s Rustin joined the Young Communist League, but he quickly became disillusioned after the party asked him to stop protesting racial segregation. Later, he worked with a prominent African American socialist leader, A. Phillip Randolph, to protest discriminatory hiring practices in the army during World War Two. He continued to protest racial discrimination and the mistreatment of gays and lesbians for many years. He enjoyed reading and writing about pacifism, nonviolent protest, and civil disobedience, and he admired Gandhi for his nonviolent protests in India. In 1955, Rustin befriended Martin Luther King Jr., the famous civil rights leader, and taught him about his beliefs. Rustin organized protests around the world, such as the 1957 "March Against Nuclear Proliferation" in Aldermaston, England.

3. Major Contributions

Rustin’s most famous contribution to the Civil Rights Movement came in his role as a participant in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963. During the march, 200,000 Americans gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to protest unfair treatment of blacks in the U.S. job market. Rustin was a key organizer for the event, and helped create a list of ten demands made to the U.S. Federal government, including immediate civil rights legislation, desegregation of schools, and a national minimum wage. The rally ended with Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In addition to organizing the March on Washington, Rustin worked tirelessly to organize other protests, and to write articles about racial discrimination in America.

2. Challenges

Rustin faced discrimination on several fronts. He was a pacifist in the middle of a world war, a black man in a segregated society, and a gay man during a time when most people viewed gays and lesbians as "defective", "ill", "sinful", and "second-class" citizens. During World War Two, he was jailed for refusing to register for the draft. He spent several more months in jail a few years later when he protested racial segregation in public transportation. He was also arrested for openly participating in homosexual activities. Even his fellow civil rights activists often did not want to include him in protests and events because he was too much of a liability in their eyes and those of the press. They simply did not want to compromise their own efforts by letting such a controversial man lead their respective movements.

1. Death and Legacy

Despite the many challenges he faced, Bayard Rustin continued to protest and write for the rest of his life. He fought tirelessly for economic equality between the races, as well as for extending equal rights to gays and lesbians. Later in his life, he again partnered with A. Philip Randolph to found the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor organization designed to help African Americans find good work in safe, fair environments. He published articles about equal civil rights and fair labor practices into the 1970s. Rustin died of a ruptured appendix in August of 1987. In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, praising him as an “unyielding civil rights activist.”


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