Black History Month Profiles: Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights Organizer

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Bayard Rustin who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.


Born: March 17, 1912, West Chester, PA
Died: Aug. 24, 1987
Best known for: his work organizing a number of protests throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

It was Bayard Rustin’s organizing that made many of the most impactful moments of the Civil Rights Movement possible. In 1963 after the historic March on Washington, Rustin appeared on the cover of Life magazine for his efforts in organizing the demonstration. But because Rustin was openly gay and formerly tied to the Communist Party, he was controversial, even to other organizers within the movement.

Born in March 1912, Rustin was one of 12 children his grandparents raised in West Chester, PA. His Quaker upbringing influenced his nonviolent ideologies, and his grandmother was a part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which meant many famous Black community leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois visited the Rustin home.

After studying for some time at Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College, Rustin attended the City College of New York where he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). After the group shifted its focus away from racial justice in 1941, Rustin left. That same year, union leader A. Philip Randolph appointed Rustin as a youth organizer of the proposed 1941 March on Washington. Rustin was also part of other groups, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which he also co-founded. His work for both organizations included educating and leading campaigns about nonviolent direct action.

During World War II, Rustin spent more than two years in prison for refusing to join the military. In 1947, CORE carried out the Journey of Reconciliation, later known as the first Freedom Ride, in protest of racial segregation on interstate bus rides. The Freedom Rides of 1961 were influenced by this first demonstration. Rustin and other organizers were arrested and spent 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina. After he was released, Rustin wrote a report about the brutal and inhumane conditions that was published in several newspapers and led to the reform of the practice of prison chain gangs.

In 1948, Rustin traveled to India to study Gandhi’s philosophy on nonviolence. He also traveled to Africa years later on a trip that FOR and the American Friends Service Committee organized. There, he worked to support West African independence movements. However, in 1953, Rustin was asked to resign from the organization; he had been arrested in Pasadena, CA and convicted on a charge of engaging in public sex with two other men (in a parked car), for which he was posthumously pardoned in 2020. At the time, he was in town as part of a lecture tour he was doing about anti-colonial movements in West Africa. Many other figures distanced themselves from him at this time because of his homosexuality, which he did not hide.

During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin was a key advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite Rustin being controversial because of his sexuality and former ties to the YCL, King respected his knowledge, connections and organizing skills. Rustin served as King’s proofreader, teacher, strategist and even ghostwriter.

Rustin was also key in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which successfully organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted for more than a year. In 1963, Rustin became the deputy director of the March on Washington, which brought more than 200,000 demonstrators to the U.S. capital, and where King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Rustin continued his work, advocating for gay rights and going on humanitarian missions around the world.

He died in 1987 after returning from a mission trip to Haiti. After his death, Rustin was posthumously recognized for his influence, with honors including being inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor display celebrating LGBTQ history in Chicago in 2012. In 2013, former President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sources: King Institute at Stanford, NBC News, AFL-CIO, National Museum of African American History and Culture


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