One of the biggest stories in Washington, DC, these days is the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The dominant news organization in the city, the Washington Post, has published any number of stories on the topic.
When I first spotted an article on the front page of the Post’s high-profile Style section about the masterful organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, I cringed.
I had that reaction because I feared that here would be yet another story about Bayard Rustin that failed to mention a particular detail about him that I’d like the whole world to know: He was openly gay.
But when I started reading the story, I was surprised—and pleased—to see that Rustin’s sexuality wasn’t merely in the piece but was the major theme of the article.
The reporter, Steve Hendrix, wrote that many African American leaders of half a century ago didn’t want Rustin to have a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement because they disapproved of his being gay, as well as his openness about it.
“In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell, the minister-congressman from Harlem,” the Post article read, “threatened to float a rumor that King was one of Rustin’s lovers if King didn’t exile him from his inner circle. King pushed him away, reluctantly, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
It was only because of another African American leader of the time, A. Philip Randolph, that Rustin was given his role as chief organizer of the march. Randolph, who’s often credited with coming up with the idea for the March on Washington, was Rustin’s long-time mentor.
A leading racist of the era did, in fact, try to turn Rustin’s sexuality into an issue.
A week or two before the 1963 event, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina attacked Rustin on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The rabid segregationist’s rant filled eight pages in the Congressional Record, including his denunciation of Rustin as a “sex pervert.”
One reason the Congressional Record entry was so long was that Thurmond made sure it included every detail of a 1953 incident when Rustin had been arrested on a morals charge—he’d been caught entangled with two other men in a parked car in Pasadena, Calif.
King and Randolph countered Thurmond’s move by expressing their confidence in Rustin. With that endorsement, the planning for the march—which culminated with King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech—continued.
One of my favorite statements in the Post story came from Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate to Congress. Norton worked under Rustin as a volunteer for the march, and she was quoted in the article. “When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” she said. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized.”
The article described how Rustin had taken enormous care to make sure the march proceeded smoothly. Clearly one of the type-A gays that we all know (and that some of us are married to!), Rustin saw to it that buses were booked, speeches were vetted, and portable toilets were rented. He also played the role of diplomat, deciding how long the various groups participating in the march would have at the podium during the post-march speeches at the Lincoln Memorial.
Rustin, then 53 years old, also worked with the hundreds of off-duty police officers who volunteered to act as marshals. Rustin first insisted that they take off their guns, and then he coached them in the techniques of non-violent crowd control.
One of Rustin’s lieutenants, Rachelle Horowitz, was quoted in the Post story as saying, “We used to go out to the courtyard to watch. It was like, see Bayard tame the police.”
Horowitz also recalled, “The details for him had real meaning. It had to be well organized, non-violent and peaceful, because nobody believed that black Americans could organize a march of this size. Even liberals said there would be riots.”
It was also Horowitz who made the point that Rustin was open about his sexuality. “He absolutely didn’t hide it,” she said. “He’d never heard there was a closet.”
The article pointed out that Bayard Rustin, despite his important contributions, isn’t widely remembered for his critical role in either the March on Washington or the Civil Rights Movement writ large—he was also a strategist during the Montgomery bus boycott, helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and persuaded movement leaders to embrace the tenets of Mahatma Gandhi’s style of nonviolence resistance.
As for why Rustin hasn’t received the acclaim he clearly deserves, the story quoted Bennett Singer, who co-produced a documentary about Rustin titled Brother Outsider, as offering one likely answer. Singer said, “It was his homosexuality that was always the rub.”
Fortunately, that “rub” didn’t carry the day in the recent Washington Post article.
By Rodger Streitmatter
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