B. March 17, 1912 – D. August 24, 1987

Bayard Rustin was born March 17, 1912 in West Chester Pennsylvania. Raised by his maternal grandparents, who were members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), Bayard quickly found his passion in civil rights advocacy and activism. As a youth, Bayard spent time working with W.E.B Du Bois, and James Weldon, and campaigned against the racially discriminatory Jim Crow Laws.

Rustin played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement in America, serving as an advisor on non-physical conflict resolution to Martin Luther King Jr. and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. As a Black gay man, Bayard Rustin faced many challenges in his career. As a teen and young adult, he maintained his privacy surrounding his sexual orientation, not allowing it to become a part of activism work until later years. Unfortunately, as with many influential queer men, Bayard was the target of homophobic laws and policies, contributing to his arrest for “vagrancy and lewd conduct”. He pleaded down to a lesser charge, however was still sentenced to 50 days in jail. This arrest served as the first time Rustin publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation and as a result of this, he moved to a more behind the scenes role, resigning from his role as Race Relations Secretary at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. 

Following his public arrest and outing, Bayard continued his advocacy work within the Civil Right Movement, but started engaging in LGBTQ+ advocacy and activism in the 1980s. A key part of his activism was a speech he gave in 1986, in which he compared the Gay Rights Liberation to the Civil Rights Movement in the sense that “gay people are the new barometer for social change, the question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people”. This speech, while controversial, raised many crucial points about cross marginalization and the key concepts behind intersectionality. How our many different identities impact the ways in which we go through life, and how we face systemic oppression based on these identities. 

Bayard Rustin was a successful activist, and heavily contributed to the advancement of Civil Rights in America. His story is one of oppression, systemic racism and homophobia, and how one queer Black man can create social change and betterment. Although he passed away in 1987, he will always be remembered as one of the first openly gay Black Civil Rights leaders. 

A new 2023 film starring Colman Domingo as Rustin is now available on Netflix.


Black History Month

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