Bayard Rustin: Black Americans can’t ignore openly gay icon’s contribution to civil rights movement

OPINION - Bayard Rustin, who had worked with the original March in 1941, was a constant and steady force during the influential civil rights activities of the early 20th century. He was also openly gay...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

President Obama’s announcement that he supports gay marriage has provoked a spirited debate about whether or not African-Americans will continue to support him this November. Some black clergy have openly denounced President Obama’s position. Maryland State Delegate and Baptist minister Emmett Burns has publicly gone on record declaring that Obama will lose his re-election bid, even accusing the president of turning his back on his black constituency.

On the other hand, Rev. Otis Moss, III, of Trinity Baptist Church in Chicago, the Obamas’ former church once headed by the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, wrote in an open letter in support of the president, saying, “There is no doubt people who are same-gender-loving who [sic] occupy prominent places in the body of Christ.”

In the midst of this contentious debate within the black community some have either ignored or forgotten the role some openly gay Americans played in fighting for the civil rights of all Americans regardless of race or sexual orientation. Most notable among them is Bayard Rustin.

A principal organizer of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Bayard Rustin, who had worked with the original March in 1941, was a constant and steady force during the influential civil rights activities of the early 20th century. He was also openly gay. Yet neither Martin Luther King, Jr. nor A. Philip Randolph, with whom he worked intimately, voiced any known concern about his sexuality.

It is even been reported that until Rustin reached out to Dr. King in the early stages of the pivotal Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King was not completely committed to nonviolent direct action. Armed men guarded his home and he, himself, reportedly owned a handgun. A veteran civil rights and human activist as well as pacifist, Rustin schooled Dr. King in the tactics of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, having studied it himself with those who worked closely with Gandhi in 1948 at a conference in India organized prior to Gandhi’s assassination.

Prior to Rustin’s important role as a key adviser to Dr. King, he had worked extremely closely with A. Philip Randolph, who is credited with introducing him to Gandhi’s philosophy and its usefulness in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Rustin was also a pivotal figure in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the well-known peace organization, and helped guide the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In fact, he was a key organizer for the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, which inspired the more well-known Freedom Rides of the 1960s.

Rustin, who walked the walk, took part in those rides, personally challenging segregated bus transportation. Prior to that formal action, Rustin had refused to sit in segregated bus seating in 1942 and accepted a severe beating in Nashville by four cops. His refusal to resist was so extraordinary that the assistant district attorney released him uncharged.

While serving a prison sentence from 1944 to 1946 for refusing the draft, he didn’t sit idly by as his time passed. Instead, he challenged segregation in prison. When a white inmate beat him severely with a mop handle for crossing the color line for one of the white-only activities, Rustin’s refusal to fight back and accept the beating so disturbed the man that he was left severely shaken by the encounter. Although he was found at fault and was placed in solitary confinement, Rustin insisted that he not be punished. This was a powerful statement to his fellow supporters also serving time.

Because Rustin had been charged with a homosexual act in California in 1953, his sexuality was well-known. Some like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. openly objected to Rustin’s homosexuality. Powell even went as far as demanding that King publicly break ties with him. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP had concerns with Rustin’s sexuality as well as his past ties to Communism. Neither man’s objections, however, kept Dr. King from accepting Rustin’s guidance.

In fact, Rustin, who was New York-based, helped raise the critical funds that kept the Montgomery Bus Boycott going. Rustin was even instrumental in helping Dr. King organize SCLC and continued communicating with him until his assassination in 1968.

Born in segregated West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912, to a teenage mother whom he thought was his sister until around age 11, Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandmother’s mother had been bought out of slavery by Quakers and, as a result, his grandmother, who was a huge influence in his life, was raised in the Quaker faith, so Rustin encountered pacifism early. Well-known to the NAACP leadership, Rustin was exposed to W.E.B. DuBois and many other historic figures who stayed in their family home. His organizing skills were also undoubtedly enhanced by working with his grandfather’s catering company.

A gifted singer, Rustin raised his voice often to generate funds to help advance civil rights for African-Americans and peace. He was also very much in-tune to predict that gay rights would evolve into the major issue it is now.

Given his significant contributions to advancing civil rights, those who oppose the president’s commitment to civil rights for all, including gay people, might want to rethink their position. After all, without Bayard Rustin’s relentless efforts, neither of those people would have the luxury of opposing anything.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha