Top Aide to Martin Luther King Receives, Posthumously, Presidential Medal of Freedom

Bayard Rustin Organized March on Washington in ‘63

If you, like I, didn’t know the name of Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), don’t feel ashamed. Called “the unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin was unapologetically Black and unapologetically gay and for a significant period of history he was erased,” comments Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition for Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Early Pacifist

Raised as a Quaker in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Bayard Rustin learned from his grandmother Julia to take a nonviolent yet effective stand for equality at an early age. Rustin rallied against Jim Crow laws and the case against the Scottsboro Boys in his youth.

In the 1940’s, he was jailed for refusing to fight in World War II. He helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and led the first “Freedom Rides” of the 1940’s. He initially planned a “March on Washington” in 1941, but” the threat to stage a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination throughout defense industries,” wrote David Garrow at The New York Times.

Affiliation with Dr. King

Rustin first met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956 when he help organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was he who educated King in Gandhian nonviolent protest principles. He is credited with mentoring King and helping to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He became the top lieutenant to King and labor leader A. Phillip Randolph.

“The New Niggers Are Gay”

Early on, Rustin saw a need for coalition building and forming allies. He debated Malcolm X and stressed the importance of seeing the world’s various races as one big family. In a 1986 speech, “The New Niggers Are Gay,” he raised the similarities between the struggles of the black and LGBT communities: “The new “niggers” are gays. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

It was Rustin who organized the 1963 March on Washington that brought more than 200,000 people to the rally at which King delivered his famous “I have a Dream” Speech, the same year that Medgar Evers was assassinated and Birmingham saw police violence against civil rights demonstrations.
A master at logistics and details, Rustin organized buses, lunches, child care and celebrity speakers. He accomplished all this without the help of internet and computer.

Very Much His Own Person

Rustin was openly gay in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. “This was unprecedented for a Black man at that time,” said Reverend MacArthur Flournoy, director of Faith Partnership and Mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign.

The F.B.I. had a large surveillance file on Rustin. Strom Thurmond lambasted Rustin as a “communist, draft-dodger and homosexual,” After Rustin was arrested in 1953 for a “sex perversion” offense, and sent to jail for sixty days, his credibility suffered as a civil rights activist. The U.S. government also used his sexuality to undermine him. Thurmond had Rustin’s arrest file entered in the congressional record.

After his arrest, he became more discreet with his liaisons. He met his partner Walter Naegle, then 27, whom he later adopted (they couldn’t marry) in 1977. Naegle is white as was Rustin’s previous partner, Davis Platt, who died in 2008.

Naegle has been working with a team within the Bayard Foundation to keep his legacy alive, notably helping in the 2002 documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. Rustin was one of the sixteen honorees to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom which was presented to Naegle for Rustin’s contributions.