President Barack Obama is giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a man some civil rights leaders wanted erased from history. August 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was organized by a civil rights leader named Bayard Rustin who was directly responsible for its success. He’s the same man who introduced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the nonviolent protest methods of Mahatma Gandhi, and helped found both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the A. Philip Randolph Institute. So, why was Rustin erased from American civil rights history?
“Bayard Rustin probably did more than any one individual to put the March on Washington together. It is a shame and a disgrace that he has not received the recognition he deserves. The only reason he failed to receive that recognition is because he was gay. He was openly gay and never tried to hide it,” Congressman John Lewis told FENUXE during a recent interview.
Although civil rights demonstrations were taking place throughout the American South, the nation’s eyes were on Birmingham. Young Black Americans who were standing up and calling for civil rights were met with imprisonment and inhumane violence. “Hundreds and thousands of young people… children had been arrested and jailed trying to march through the streets of Birmingham to get downtown and protest at the department stores, lunch counters, and restaurants. The police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Conner, used dogs on young children and women,” Congressman Lewis said.
After the violence in Birmingham, President Kennedy addressed the nation and asked for calm and understanding. “He asked the nation how it would feel to walk in the shoes of the protesters or in the shoes of people of color who had been denied certain rights,” Congressman Lewis remembered. However, the first NAACP field secretary in the state of Mississippi, Medgar Evers, was assassinated that same night.
Following Evers’ death, “President Kennedy called together a group of us at the White House and we met with him. It was in that meeting that one of the leaders, [A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader], spoke up and said, ‘Mr. President, the Black masses are restless and we’re going to march on Washington.’ You could tell by President Kennedy’s body language he didn’t like what he heard. He started moving in his chair and twisting around,” Congressman Lewis said. After considering what Randolph had just said, President Kennedy looked at him and asked, “‘If you bring all of these people to Washington won’t there be violence, chaos, and disorder?’ And Mr. Randolph said, ‘This will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest,’” Congressman Lewis continued.
It was Bayard Rustin who ensured the March on Washington would be a nonviolent protest. Rustin had traveled around the world, specifically to India and Africa, where he learned about nonviolent protests and peaceful movements. “He believed in the way of peace, nonviolence, and the way of love. Dr. King needed someone who had a deep understanding of the techniques, tactics, discipline, and philosophy of nonviolence. He played a major role in encouraging Dr. King to accept the way of Gandhi,” Congressman Lewis added.
However, Rustin was fighting for civil rights under unimaginably difficult circumstances. “To be gay during the 40s, 50s, and early 60s for a Black man in the leadership of a movement was hard. But he didn’t let it get him down. He continued to work – day and night,” Congressman Lewis said. “Even during the discussion [about whether Rustin] should be the chair of the March on Washington, there were some Black leaders who said, ‘No, it would make [him] a leader and the Senators from the South would try to tarnish the March,’” Congressman Lewis explained.
But Lewis knew they needed Rustin for the March on Washington to be a success. Lewis met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Farmer to discuss what was happening to Rustin. “I watched Bayard in the meetings and I felt in my heart and my gut that he was being discriminated against. I’ve always felt that no one should be put down because of their race, color, nationality, or sexual orientation,” Congressman Lewis said.
Lewis, Farmer and Dr. King devised a plan that would allow Rustin to help lead the March on Washington without being the chairman. “We made the decision that if they didn’t want Bayard we would select A. Philip Randolph to be the chair. We knew Mr. Randolph would select Bayard as his deputy because there was no one in the leadership more brilliant who could pull people together better than this man,” Congressman Lewis remarked.
Their plan worked and Randolph quickly picked Rustin as his deputy. However, Rustin was viciously attacked by Senators in the South like some leaders had feared. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond actively spoke out against Rustin calling him a, “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual.” Thurmond even showed Congress an FBI photo of Rustin and King talking in the bathroom. He suggested the photo showed that King and Rustin were lovers.
Keeping their focus on the movement, Rustin and Randolph didn’t let the naysayers derail their efforts. “If it hadn’t been for Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph there wouldn’t have been a March on Washington. On that day, according to the police and the National Park Service, about 250,000 people showed up, but I think it was one of the great undercounts of all time. I think it was many, many more. It was a sea of humanity,” Congressman Lewis said.
Less than a year after the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act was enacted on July 2, 1964. Yet, the fight for equality was far from over. “I remember after Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, he came back to Washington and had a meeting with President Johnson. He told him we need a voting rights act. President Johnson said, in so many words, ‘I just signed the Civil Rights Act, we don’t have the votes in the Congress to get a voting rights act passed.’ But he said to Dr. King, ‘Make me do it. Create the climate. Create the environment. Make me do it and I will sign it.’ And that’s what we did,” Congressman Lewis explained. Within months the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted by the 89th U.S. Congress.
Despite being an instrumental leader in America’s civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin remains largely unknown. Homophobia has kept his name out of the history books, but that is quickly changing. “We’ve made a lot of progress. He’s going to [posthumously] receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and I’m so happy,” Congressman Lewis said. “It is so fitting. It is almost like history and fate coming together. The same year we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is the same year that Bayard Rustin will be honored by the President of the United States of America. It’s long overdue,” Congressman Lewis concluded. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award in the United States. Coincidentally, it was established in 1963 and replaced the Medal of Freedom created by President Truman for civilians who aided in war efforts. Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, will accept the award from President Obama.
As our community works to further the gay equality movement, it is important that we learn from those who came before us. Bayard Rustin, Congressman Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others created a climate in the 1960s that made change unavoidable. It’s time our community heeds President Johnson’s advice and we “make” our politicians protect our human rights.
A biographical film about Bayard Rustin was made called “Brother Outsider.” It won a GLAAD Media Award and was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. You can see a preview of it below: