Celebrating Black History and Excellence in Advocacy: Bayard Rustin

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s easy for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks to take center stage. While all three individuals deserve every bit of the praise and attention they’ve received, to relegate Black History to a handful of people is to do a disservice to the culture and the work of so many other individuals. This month, we’ve tried to highlight influential leaders that have dedicated their lives to advocating for the rights of African Americans in this country. Today, we honor Bayard Rustin.

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912, Bayard Rustin was a man before his time. Rustin was very vocal about injustice in his own community and was not afraid to act in accordance with his beliefs. As a teenager, he committed himself to actively fighting for civil rights. His earliest demonstration of resistance was an organized sit in at a restaurant that served his white football teammates, yet refused to serve him. In his twenties and thirties, he formed ties to communist groups and socialist thought leaders, yet his strongest allegiance was to the pacifist teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. He would go on to share his beliefs with Dr. Martin Luther King and is credited with influencing his famous nonviolent teachings.

Not only was Rustin an advocate for the rights of African Americans, he fought for civil rights for everyone. In the 1940s he travelled across the country to speak out and advocate on behalf of the thousands of Japanese Americans who were unjustly thrown into internment camps during World War II. Rustin’s style of activism saw no race, creed, or religion and his dedication to civil rights for all was a defining feature of his life.

As an openly gay man, Rustin was criticized and persecuted because of his sexual orientation for most of his life. His relationships with other prominent Civil Rights leaders often became fodder for harsh rumors about his personal life. These rumors lead leaders of the movement to try and distance themselves from Rustin, regardless of his obvious prowess in organizing. Even so, Rustin did not allow the backwards thinking of his time to distract him from advocating on behalf of people who looked and loved like he did.

In addition to his other contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin is most known for his instrumental role in organizing the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin, along with A. Phillip Randolph, a fellow civil rights activist and leader, worked to bring together various civil rights and religious organizations to demand freedom and jobs for African Americans. Over 200,000 people attended the march, which is often credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Rustin’s lifelong dedication to organizing and advocating is especially relevant to our current national climate. Our neighbors are no longer sitting down and shutting up, but taking to the streets to protest. More people are willing to stand up against injustice even in the face of uncertain consequences. Like Bayard Rustin, we must be so convinced and sure of our battle for justice and righteousness that nothing can get in our way. Rustin was willing to face personal slights, legal retribution, and character assaults to fight for what he believed in. His level of activism and dedication to civil rights for all serves as an example for the work we do every day.