Bayard Rustin probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin was a key organizer behind the movement, but his presence as an openly gay Black man was seen largely as a liability and a threat to progress. Now, 60 years after the 1963 March on Washington, his legacy is being shared and celebrated in a new Netflix film titled ‘Rustin.’
Rustin spent his entire lifetime supporting prolific civil rights leaders and fighting for equality. He managed to secure transportation, funding and food to support the 250,000 peaceful protestors at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Despite this contribution, his legacy was nearly erased from history over fears that supporting a gay activist could derail the Civil Rights Movement.
The new film shines a light on the brilliant strategist, intellectual, and activist who was behind this groundbreaking protest.
Here’s what you should know about this bold, unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement.
Rustin had a profound influence on Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. is often remembered as the face of peaceful protest during the Civil Rights Movement, but Rustin and a few other influential pacifists were the ones who encouraged him to adopt this lifestyle. Rustin’s steadfast commitment to nonviolence was rooted in his childhood. He was raised by Quaker grandparents who immersed him in principles of peace at a young age. By 1956, Rustin became one of King’s key advisers and persuaded him to make nonviolent tactics a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement.
Rustin faced opposition on both sides of the racial divide
Perhaps one of the most astonishing and admirable aspects of Rustin’s legacy was his continued commitment to equality even when his allies failed to defend his rights as a gay man.
‘Rustin’ depicts the moral ambiguity that existed for some of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders. Roy Wilkins, a longtime executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, the first Black Congressman to be elected from New York, both objected to Rustin’s involvement with the march. They believed it would be impossible to defend Rustin in the public eye since he was previously arrested for having sex with a man.
President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin with a Medal of Freedom
It should come as no surprise that Netflix’s biographical drama centered on the life of Bayard Rustin was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions. In 2013, President Obama chose Bayard Rustin to posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He was ousted from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Rustin worked with King to help form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, but his involvement was short-lived. While King saw Rustin as a valuable adviser, other civil rights leaders feared that an openly gay man could tarnish the organization’s reputation. Reluctantly, Rustin was forced to resign from the organization that he helped create.
He was once affiliated with the communist party
Rustin’s past was heavily scrutinized throughout the Civil Rights Movement. As Black people were in the midst of fighting for basic human rights, there was a lot of concern that the wrong kind of publicity could change the perception of the entire movement. This meant that Rustin’s past affiliations with the Young Communist League (YCL), was another target for civil rights leaders.
Rustin joined the YCL in college. At the time, the communist party was pushing for public education about racial injustice, legal support for civil rights activities, and the desegregation of unions. In the 1940s, however, they shifted away from civil rights. Leaders in the YCL asked Rustin to stop protesting racial segregation, which drove him to leave and denounce the party before joining the democratic socialist movement.
He fought for equality and justice on a global scale for all people
In 1942, Rustin worked alongside the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee to provide support for Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. His legacy also involves fighting for free elections across Central America and Africa.
Publicly declaring his sexuality was an act of resistance
Rustin had been ousted from multiple civil rights organizations due to his sexuality, but he believed that concealing his sexuality would uphold the same discrimination he was fighting to dismantle. He continued to proudly declare his sexuality even though it meant he could never be a vocal or visible part of the movements he organized.
His love life was intrinsically complicated
‘Rustin’ gives viewers a raw look into how the iconic activists’ relationships, both romantic and platonic, are challenged by the public’s fear of homosexuality. Proximity to any man, even a friend, can easily be twisted into a romance that never existed. Meanwhile, the relationships his heart desired are often off-limits or riddled with the same so-called “liabilities” that pushed him into the shadows of a movement he dedicated his life to.
Rustin’s contributions to the civil rights movement and his resilience in the face of adversity are nothing short of extraordinary. While history often overlooked his pivotal role due to his sexual orientation, his legacy is finally receiving the recognition it has long deserved.
Watch Rustin’s inspiring journey organizing the 1963 March on Washington in Netflix’s ‘Rustin’ starting November 17.