Bayard Rustin

Activist / Civil Rights Figure
Date Of Birth:
17 March 1912
Place Of Birth:
Best Known As:
Organizer behind Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington
Civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin was a brilliant organizer whose influence in the 1950s and '60s has been overshadowed by celebrations for Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time he met King for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1956-57), Rustin was a seasoned protester and organizer. He'd spent 26 months in jail for draft evasion, he'd organized a 1941 march on Roosevelt's Washington (it was called off), and he had visited India just after Gandhi's assassination, in 1948, to study the tenets of non-violence protest. It's said that Rustin was a great influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., and that it was Rustin who organized the logistics of the 1963 March on Washington, a successful protest that involved more than 100,000 people and made King a household name. There are those who say Rustin didn't get enough credit for his role in the civil rights movement because he was openly gay. There are others who say his closeness with the Democratic party and his lack of opposition to the Vietnam War repelled his former colleagues in the civil rights movement. In the 1970s Rustin moved from protesting to politics, and his (and others') shifting alliances led to some considering his politics a betrayal. Later in his life, Rustin had a reputation as a staunch advocate for Israel, and as a harsh critic of communism and the Soviet Union. He worked on humanitarian causes around the world, including North Africa, Cambodia and Haiti. Rustin was praised by President Ronald Reagan at the time of his death, and he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013.
Extra Credit

Bayard Rustin was open about his homosexuality from early adulthood; his arrest in California in 1953 for having sex in a car with two men haunted his career. Although his homosexuality was well known in his circle, it was used against him by political enemies, including by Democratic Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York and by Southern Democrat-turned-Republican Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

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