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Who is Bayard Rustin?

Bayard Rustin was an American civil rights activist who fought alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the mid-1960’s. Rustin committed himself to a life of non-violence and projected these values when fighting for rights. Bayard Rustin organized and initiated the Freedom Rides as well as the March on Washington where he stood beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave his influential “I have a dream” speech naming him “Mr. March on Washington” by A. Phillip Randolf. Rustin fought for the rights of others while battling discrimination of his own as he was a Black gay male.

Bayard Rustin was played a pivotal advising role in the Civil Rights Movement (Image Source: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Bayard Rustin was raised into a non-violent lifestyle (Image Source: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Early Life

Bayard Rustin was born in Pennsylvania in the year 1912 and raised by his two grandparents alongside his 11 other siblings. Rustin’s grandmother was a part of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) exposing Rustin to many prominent Black leaders at the time such as W.E.B Dubois as they often visited the home. Rustin’s grandparents raised the children in a Quaker lifestyle and household which influenced his nonviolent ways well into adulthood. Rustin went on to attend the City College of New York where he involved himself in many racial justice organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). It was during his time at this college where he was chosen as a youth organizer for the March on Washington

Advisor to Dr. King

Rustin first started his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After a mutual respect formed between both individuals was formed, Rustin began teaching Dr. King his nonviolent ways. He used his knowledge from studying the Gandhian lifestyle to educate Dr. King on the value of taking on nonviolent approaches and tactics to work through and fight struggle. Bayard played a large role in bringing Black leaders from the South together to become a united group through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLS) and he was also instrumental in drafting a “Stride Toward Freedom” which is the name of Dr.King's memoir.


Struggles with Sexuality

In 1953, when homosexuality was still rampantly criminalized throughout the United States, Bayard Rustin was arrested for commiting a homosexual act. His sexuality was outed to the public as a crime, leading some of his fellow civil rights leaders to look down upon him and criticize his identity. Due to the fact that Bayard's sexuality was now public knowledge, many individuals and politicians that opposed Rustin used this as a point of attack to demean his character. For this reason, Rustin often avoided public speaking or being the face of movements and instead took an advising role in order to avoid such attacks.

Civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, left, with Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin was arrested on a “morals charge” in Pasadena in 1953.(Images: Courtesy of the estate of Bayard Rustin/Monroe Frederick)

Bayard Rustin, deputy director, and Cleveland Robinson, chairman of Administrative Committee, March on Washington. (Image Source: World Telegram & Sun photo. Prints and Photographs Division/Orlando Fernandez)

Death and Legacy

One late night in the year 1987, Bayard Rustin was admitted to the hospital. He was diagnosed with peritonitis and perforated appendix which was giving him the severe abdominal pain that brought him in. In order to treat Rustin, he needed to undergo extensive surgery, however his history of heart issues unfortunately led his body to give out during the surgery. While on the operating table, Rustin went into cardiac arrest which took his life. Bayard's legacy lived on by his survivors as a man who spent his life fighting for civil rights and advising many prominent leaders. It was after his death that he was given the name “Mr. March” by Randolph.

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