Have you heard his name? Well you really should because chances are, if not for Bayard Rustin, you would not know the name Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin was the man behind the magic for much of the Civil Rights Movement from the early 40’s well into the 60’s.
Rustin had the opportunity to get involved in activism from an early age. His family were activists themselves and often entertained notable names in the movement such as W.E.B. Du Bois. From there, Rustin went to Wilberforce University, a historically Black College or University (HBCU). Wilberfoce is one of the oldest HBCUs in existence and was the first to be run by African Americans. Rustin, in his time there, became involved as he refined his organizing abilities. He became a member of Omega Psi Phi.
Now, Rustin was a big name in organizing. He was rarely the face of the movement, but Rustin recognized the power of a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. and helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was Rustin’s brainchild and a core force behind the impact of King’s actions. More than that, Rustin was a mentor, helping to educate and prepare MLK in the ways of nonviolence.
Not only was Rustin a man with ideas, but he had the passion to organize. He worked beside A. Philip Randolph to organize the March on Washington in 1941 to help end discrimination in business before WWII. Rustin helped to start the 1947 Freedom Ride over interstate bussing. He was the key organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom…you know, that place where you may have heard of a little speech called “I Have a Dream”.
So then why have you possibly and more so, probably not heard of Bayard Rustin? Well, see, Rustin was a gay man. He had been arrested in 1953 for charges related to this and was criticized for his public image damaging his effectiveness. MLK would even distance himself from Rustin because of this overtime because of the controversy it raised. Another strike against Rustin was his involvement in the Communist party early in his life. Considering the early 50’s were the peak of McCarthyism, you can imagine how that affected how Rustin was seen.
Of course Rustin’s activism did not stop with Civil Rights for Black people in the US. He was a life-long humanitarian, putting in effort to help others. He fought over labor rights, gay rights, and more. He was a Socialist Democrat and spent his later years in life taking humanitarian trips around the world.
He was one heck of a man.
Still, with all of this in mind, imagine where we might (or might not be) today if not for the actions and impact of Bayard Rustin. He was a driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement for decades yet he rarely gets any credit. Keep him in mind, appreciate him. He probably would not have minded others being remembered for this work, but that does not mean he does not deserve recognition.