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Looking Back On LGBTQ Activist Bayard Rustin, Who Organized The Iconic March On Washington

Bayard Rustin was openly gay when he organized the march in Washington, D.C. during which Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Portrait of American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin

He is probably one of the biggest pioneers of the civil rights movement — but you might have never heard of him.

Bayard Rustin was behind the legendary March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech,” as noted by National Public Radio.

He was a mentor and adviser to King at a time even though homophobia was rampant and he "reached international notoriety" because he was openly gay.

"At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him," Rustin told the Blade in the 1980s, according to the “Making Gay History” podcast.

But despite being openly gay and open in the early 1960s, he still proudly led the landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, according to the New York Times. 

By that point, he was basically an expert at activism.

For decades before that march, Rustin had organized protests and developed action strategies. In 1941, he and A. Philip Randolph organized the March on Washington movement, seeking an end to racial discrimination in hiring practices. He'd go on to organize Freedom Rides in the early 1960s to protest racial segregation.

Born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin learned the power of nonviolence from his grandmother, a Quaker. By adulthood, he was mesmerized by the nonviolent Indian revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi. Rustin identified as both a socialist and a pacifist and went to prison for refusing to fight in World War II.

He was also the victim of several homophobic attacks. And, in 1953, he was arrested for engaging in sexual activity with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, California. He pleaded guilty to "sex perversion" as a result and served 60 days in jail, National Public Radio reported in 2019.

He was granted a posthumous pardon for the conviction in 2020.

Rustin wanted to be a powerful force behind the scenes of civil rights movements, but not the face, National Public Radio reports. Instead he wanted Dr. King to be the image of the march and the movement. (His sexuality also likely played a role as to why he was cast into the background, according to “Making Gay History.”)

Following the March on Washington, he continued to fight for civil rights, organizing a massive boycott of New York City public schools in 1964 in protest over de-facto segregation. The one-day boycott on Feb. 3 of that year drew 400,000 participants. He was also a strong voice for economic justice, advocating for strong labor unions, as well as LGBTQ rights.

He died in 1987 of cardiac arrest, at age 75, while living in New York City. His New York Times obituary identified his partner, Walter Naegle, as his “administrative assistant and adopted son.”

He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013. 

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