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Spotlight: Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was a leader and organizer in countless social movements over his lifetime. Including the civil rights, nonviolence, socialism, and gay rights movements. Rustin was a key organizer in both the 1941 and 1963 March on Washington, the latter being the location of the historic “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.. He was the lead contributor in advising Martin Luther King Jr. to adopt his philosophy of nonviolent resistance and advised King on the tactics of civil disobedience. It was with Rustin’s assistance in 1956 that helped King to organize the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

Rustin was someone that King relied on to aid in developing organizational strategies and resistance tactics due to Rustin’s expertise in conducting sit-ins and teaching how to react to violence. However, Rustin was considered controversial to work with at that time due to the fact that he was an out homosexual. It was a point of contention with many organizers and activists that having Bayard be so closely tied with King would take away from the movement causing speculation around the two, possibly resulting in the end of the movement.

In a letter responding to a letter from Edward Gottlieb, the chairman of the War Resisters League in 1960, King sent reassurance that Bayard was an essential part of his movement’s efforts stating “we are convinced that Bayard's expertness and commitment in this area [nonviolence] will be of inestimable value in our future efforts''(source). Rustin’s value was never lost on those around him, however not many were able to see past their own homophobia or society's homophobia to push him to the forefront of the movements consistently relegating him to the shadows behind the scenes.

In 1953, he was arrested for an alleged sexual act involving another man, which at the time was considered a criminal act, leading Rustin to conclude “I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer” in a collection of writings. It can be seen in all his work after that moment that he was aware of the impact his sexuality would have on his activism. When organizing the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was aware that he wouldn't receive public acknowledgement for organizing the event but he knew his activism was more important than the recognition. He never officially received any public recognition until November 20, 2013, when President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

By Kevin J.

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