Happy Birthday, Bayard Rustin!

March 17, 2014

Happy birthday to Bayard Rustin.

Here was a man who ferociously tended a diverse ecosystem of struggle–as an anti-war warrior, civil rights activist, labor rights crusader, human rights monitor, and gifted strategist. As Martin Luther King, Jr.’s chief adviser, Rustin helped bring together the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was behind King’s embrace of Gandhian nonviolent protest. He was also the architect behind the groundbreaking 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which further solidified King’s reputation as an civil rights leader.

But Rustin was gay, and his genius was consistently downplayed and erased due to homophobia. He endured much anti-gay persecution and silencing inside and outside of the social justice movements he contributed to so ardently. The FBI had a 10,000-page file on him. He arrested for “a homosexual act” in the 1950s. King distanced himself from Rustin after being warned that Rustin’s sexual orientation would tarnish King’s reputation, and thus undermine the civil rights movement.

But he went on to found and direct A. Philip Randolph Institute, making links between racial and economic justice as well as workers’ rights. He once said that “every community” needs “a group of angelic troublemakers.” Bayard Rustin was indeed an angelic troublemaker for so many communities, so many movements for justice.