For one month a year, the nation sets aside much-needed time to highlight the achievements made by black Americans and challenges they continue to endure. Despite the importance of Black History Month, the conversation seems to be limited to a few important names — such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and W.E.B. DuBois to name a few — but lesser-known black Americans from all walks of life and experiences have had equally important roles in spreading tolerance and teaching acceptance. To celebrate Black History Month, VICE Impact is focusing on the accomplishments of unsung heroes who were key figures in the fight for racial equality.
As a gay black man, Bayard Rustin fought for equality for all people regardless of their race, gender or sexuality. During the 1960s he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and shared his knowledge of non-violent resistance and political organizing. Rustin was jailed on several occasions for both civil disobedience in the name of racial equality and for unapologetically living his life out of the closet.
Born in 1912, Rustin grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and took a strong stance against injustice in his formative years. In his teens, he was arrested for sitting in the white-only area of a movie theater and after college moved to New York City where he became active in politically charged circles. He studied at the City College of New York and flirted with joining the Young Communist League before losing interest in their cause. During World War II, Rustin worked with A. Philip Randolph, a socialist and civil rights leader at the time, to protest the military’s hiring discrimination for war-time work based on race.
During World War II, he was jailed for refusing to register for the draft as a conscientious objector. In a letter explaining his conscription protest, Rustin wrote, “War is wrong. Conscription is a concomitant of modern war. Thus, conscription for so vast an evil as war is wrong.” He was also arrested in 1947 for protesting bus segregation. In the ‘40’s he was arrested in New York on a “morals charge,” and again in 1953 in California for being caught in a sex act with two men by law enforcement.
Rustin’s activist philosophy was shaped in part by the pacifism of his grandmother’s Quaker faith and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He went to India in 1948, at arguably the peak of segregation in the states, to learn more about non-violent protest. Rustin had an influential role in introducing King to Gandhi’s ideology and how to take action without aggression. Rustin aided King in organizing the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott, which was planned after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger and several other instances of discrimination.
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He went on to help King found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and convinced the NAACP to advocate for minimum wage legislation because poverty disproportionately affected black Americans. Perhaps Rustin’s biggest accomplishment was co-organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King delivered his “I Have A Dream Speech” in 1963.
Rustin’s pacifism and open sexuality forced him to work in the shadows of the movement. He was mischaracterized as a communist draft-dodger and a pervert, which some civil rights leaders — including King— believed would hurt their cause. He was forced to resign from both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, another racial justice group.
The year before his death in 1987, Rustin wrote to New York City mayor Ed Koch about the need for a gay rights bill. Decades later in 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Honor for his unyielding activism. Although he was pushed to the margins for his sexuality, Rustin made undeniable contributions in the fight for equal treatment of all minorities.