Over the course of his life, Bayard Rustin championed the rights of many, including African Americans, unions and members of the LGBTQ community. He was a close confidant of A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of the Civil Rights movement, but for many his name is not as immediately recognizable as those of other civil rights leaders of the era.
Rustin’s previous ties with the Communist Party and his identity as a gay man were seen by some fellow activists during the 1950s and 1960s as a liability. He was officially recognized only as Deputy Director of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, for example, but he is widely recognized as the primary organizer of the event. He strongly influenced King and others with his ideas about nonviolent resistance, rooted in his Quaker upbringing and study of nonviolent resistance strategies. The emphasis on economic equality as a right at civil rights-era events is often attributed to Rustin’s efforts to bring racial and economic issues, framed as inextricably linked, to the forefront.
The digitized photographs of Rustin below reflect his work during the 1960s, but there are additional images in the collection from various periods of his life.
Later in his life Rustin spoke of the discrimination he faced at the height of the civil rights movement for his association with the Young Communist League as a young man, and for his identity as a gay man. In a 1986 recorded interview with Peg Byron from the Washington Blade, Rustin described his response to Senator Strom Thurmond’s public attacks on his character in the days leading up to the March on Washington. Despite harsh criticism from Thurmond and even from others within the civil rights movement, he continued to believe that civil rights leaders ultimately did maintain their support for his work.
Fighting inequality of many types motivated Rustin from a young age. During his interview with Byron, Rustin described an incident when he was boarding a bus in the 1940s: when a white child wanted to touch his necktie, the mother told the child not to touch an African American person, using a racial slur. Rustin recalled thinking that he had a responsibility to the child to make it known that he did not accept racial discrimination, and that as a corollary he knew he had to make it known that he did not accept discrimination based on his sexual orientation. Rustin’s consistent rejection of discrimination of many kinds, and his solidarity with many communities, is worth remembering this LGBT History Month.
- View more Prints & Photographs Division images related to the March on Washington, and read the Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
- Read descriptions of the Visual materials from the Bayard Rustin papers, which were recently processed by Prints & Photographs Division staff and are now available for viewing in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. These photographs date from about 1930 to about 1987.
- Explore other collections related to LGBTQ+ individuals and communities in the collections of the Library of Congress.
Good and timely reminder about lesser known brave Americans who stood and toiled for justice in our recent history. Bravo, PnP for posting this timely blog after the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings!
The mention of Bayard’s membership in the YCL misses the bulk of his political life as a Democratic Socialist and follower of Norman Thomas, and that he was part of the birth of the Democratic Socialists of America, something so relevant today.
Indeed — thank you for your comment elaborating on Rustin’s political life. There is certainly much more to his rich life than is conveyed in this short post.
Thanks for featuring this great American hero!