Bayard Rustin

#blackhistoryProfilesJanuary 31, 2022


Bayard Rustin was an American civil rights leader, gay rights activist, and humanitarian.

One of twelve children, Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and raised by his grandparents. Influenced by their Quaker values of nonviolence and inspired by their activism with the NAACP, Rustin moved to New York in the 1930s, where he attended college, participated in pacifist groups, and organized early civil rights protests.

In 1941, he was tapped by A. Philip Randolph to help organize the March on Washington Movement (1941-46) to fight for fair working opportunities for African Americans and desegregation of the military. He organized the 1961 Freedom Rides, helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and advised MLK on nonviolence. With Randolph, he was a key organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington.

Rustin was a gay man, and had been arrested on a “morals charge” in 1953. For many years, he kept his sexuality secret, and served as an aide and adviser, rather than in a more visible role, in the civil rights movement. His involvement in gay rights issues really began after he met Walter Naegle, who would become his partner, in the late 1970s.

In later years, he served on several humanitarian missions. He was volunteering in Haiti in 1987 when he passed away at the age of 1975. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom posthumously pardoned Rustin for his 1953 “morality” conviction.

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