Fifty years ago, on a hot, humid August day, a new American Revolution was fought. Unlike the one some 187 years prior, there were no shots fired. Instead of bloody fights on battlefields up and down the East Coast, this revolution was forged mostly in southern states, with lunch counter sit-ins, bus boycotts and peaceful words on the steps of the hallowed Lincoln Memorial.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom this week, there should be a full-fledged chapter on a certain trailblazer instead of the asterisk one usually sees, assuming there is even a mention of the man.
Bayard Rustin is probably the most important civil rights leader you’ve never heard of.
Rustin was one of the lead organizers of the March on Washington that is synonymous with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin was a confidante and adviser to King, and one of the chief organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.
But you wouldn’t know that by looking through the history books. Nor would you know that as King’s special assistant, Rustin would raise money for and organize many of the vital meetings that were had with King and other colleagues in the weeks and months leading up to the March. Even though Rustin would go on to be on the cover of “Life” magazine, he was only known to a tiny fringe of America.
You see, Rustin was a gay black man. Ten years prior, in 1953, Rustin was arrested on a morals charge — having sex in a parked car with two men.
Many of the civil rights activists involved in the 1963 march objected to his participation. As a way to attempt to tarnish the March, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond even sought to disgrace Rustin from the Senate floor. Thurmond derided Rustin for being a communist (true), a draft dodger (also true, though Rustin called himself a conscientious objector) and a homosexual.
Although I vehemently disagree with most of Rustin’s political positions and philosophies, the fight for equality knows no ideology. This is why it is nice to see that Rustin will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor by President Obama. And it was especially pleasing to hear Congressman John Lewis, the last living speaker from the March on Washington, mention Rustin last month at the commemorative celebration in Statuary Hall at the Capitol.
Ten years ago, a documentary of Rustin was made, titled, “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.” This film should be required viewing for everyone in the community, right along with “Before Stonewall” and “Milk.”
It is important that we in the gay community observe and honor our heroes of all nationalities, races, and genders. Rustin deserves a place in the annals of history right next to Frank Kameny and Harvey Milk.
Robert Turner is executive director of the District of Columbia Republican Party and former president of the D.C. chapter of Log Cabin Republicans. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @RobertTurnerDC.