Who was Bayard Rustin?

An advocate of pacifist agitation, Bayard Rustin was a pivotal figure within the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s.


He was not only the leading force behind the highly significant March on Washington in 1963, but he was also a close adviser and confidante of Dr Martin Luther King until the latter’s assassination in Memphis in 1968.

But Rustin remains a less-heralded figure of the civil rights movement, who faced both discrimination and opposition due to his status as an openly gay man.

Despite working behind-the-scenes rather than in the limelight, his legacy is that of a lifelong commitment to pacifism and social justice.

As an openly gay African-American, Mr Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights
US President Barack Obama in 2013

How did Bayard Rustin become involved in the civil rights movement?

Born in 1912, the young Bayard Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents in West Chester near Philadelphia. He had first-hand contact with some of the leading African-American activists of the day through his grandmother, Julia.

Julia Rustin was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the organisation’s leaders, including such luminaries as WEB Du Bois, were frequent visitors to the family home.

The influence of his grandmother and these senior NAACP figures on Rustin was instant and direct. During his teenage years, he campaigned against the injustice of local Jim Crow laws that stymied the rights and freedoms of West Chester’s African-American population.

“He had a strong inner spirit,” one of his school friends once observed. “Some of us were ready to give up the fight and accept the status quo. But he never would.”

His years of study at Wilberforce University, an African-American college in Ohio, ended before Rustin took his final exams – he was expelled for organising a strike. In 1936, he moved to Harlem to enroll at City College of New York.

Again, though, activism usurped academia and Rustin became deeply involved in the Scottsboro Case – a campaign for the release of nine African-American men falsely jailed (and facing the death penalty) for the alleged rape of two white women on a train.

The men faced multiple trials and retrials – even after one of the women confessed the crime to be a fabrication – and were eventually convicted and imprisoned for life. The case revealed to Rustin the true depth of white racism in 20th-century United States.

Where to watch the Rustin movie

Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, Rustin is a biopic charting the most momentous years of Bayard's Rustin's life – his time as a close confident of Martin Luther King and architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But as the trailer reveals, civils rights was not the only battle that Rustin was fighting. As an openly gay man, he faced opposition from all quarters.

Rustin is in cinemas now and will be available to stream on Netflix from 17 November

What was Bayard Rustin’s involvement in the March on Washington?

During the 1940s and 1950s, Rustin continued to organise a significant number of campaigns and protests.

In 1956, he became a key member of Martin Luther King’s inner circle. This was thanks to the advice and guidance offered during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, the year-long, city-wide protest about segregation on public transport.

Bayard Rustin with Martin Luther King and other US civil rights leaders at teh
Bayard Rustin (right) became a confident of Martin Luther King. They's pictured here at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, alongside the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (left) and Aaron E. Henry (second from right). (Photo by Getty)

Almost seven years later came the achievement for which Rustin is probably most remembered.

Together with A. Philip Randolph, president of both the Negro American Labor Council and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Rustin organised one of the largest public protests in US history – the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

On 28 August 1963, more than 200,000 demonstrators took part in the march in the nation’s capital, to demand greater civil rights and social justice.

Rustin and Randolph had been planning the event for more than 18 months, but recent events – including, that June, the murder of NAACP executive Medgar Evans on his driveway in Mississippi – ensured it took on further historical significance.

President John F Kennedy’s civil rights legislation was slowly working its passage through Congress, but the march added extra ballast to the cause.

Although derided by the more militant leader Malcolm X as “a picnic” and “a circus”, the march provided conspicuous evidence to white America of the effectiveness of peaceful protest.

While the day is most remembered for Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Randolph was also one of the event’s key speakers. Even Rustin took to the podium, reading aloud the marchers’ demands.

Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, speaks to the crowd of marchers from the Lincoln Memorial
Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, speaks to the crowd of marchers from the Lincoln Memorial (Photo by Getty)

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How well did Bayard Rustin know Martin Luther King?

While certain vociferous quarters of the civil rights movement called for violent tactics to advance the African-American cause – “by any means necessary” became a buzz phrase – Rustin’s Quaker heritage meant the adoption of a pacifist, non-violent approach was unstintingly his worldview.

Take his organisation of the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, when eight white and eight African-American men embarked on a two-week journey across the southern states to challenge segregation laws in what was a precursor of the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s. For Rustin, reconciliation outscored revenge.

Before meeting Rustin in the mid-1950s, Martin Luther King hadn’t used the word ‘non-violent’ in his public pronouncements, but after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his book Stride Towards Freedom included a chapter entitled ‘Pilgrimage to Nonviolence’.

Others in the movement were a little distrusting of Rustin, citing both his homosexuality and his prior membership of the American Communist Party (he had left in 1941). Martin Luther King held no such concerns.

“We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle,” he once wrote to a colleague in the movement, “and we are convinced that Bayard’s expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value.”

What was Bayard Rustin’s life as a gay man like?

During the 1940s, Rustin’s partner was Davis Platt, who later noted that he “never had any sense at all that Bayard felt any shame or guilt about his homosexuality”, an outlook that was “rare in those days”.

Although honest and candid privately, Rustin didn’t go public about his personal life until 1953, when he was arrested for “sex perversion” with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, California, for which he served 60 days in jail.

For the last ten years of his life, Rustin’s partner was the artist and photographer Walter Naegle.

At that time, two men weren’t permitted to enter into any kind of official civil partnership and so, in 1982, Rustin legally adopted Naegle, then aged 32, as a way of protecting the younger man’s rights. “That was the only thing we could do to kind of legalise our relationship.”

What happened to Bayard Rustin?

As a gay man, Rustin was never going to be the poster boy for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, rather than at the lectern or the ballot box, he made his influence felt behind the scenes, both as a highly persuasive advisor and tireless organiser.

During the 1970s, Rustin shifted politically towards neoconservatism, and throughout the 1980s, until his death in 1987, put gay rights at the centre of his activism.

For him, African-Americans were no longer “the litmus paper” of social change: “gay people are the new barometer”.

In 2013, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. The citation declared that “as an openly gay African-American, Mr Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights”.


Sixteen years after his death, the man in the shadows finally took centre stage.


Nige TassellJournalist and author

A journalist for more than 30 years, Nige is also a prolific author, his latest book being a history of the national stadium – Field Of Dreams: 100 Years Of Wembley In 100 Matches (Simon & Schuster). Nige has written extensively for the BBC History portfolio for many years, covering a range of subjects and eras – from the fall of the Incas and the art of the zncient Greeks to the Harlem Renaissance and the Cuban Revolution.