Gay, Black, and Quaker: History Catches Up with Bayard Rustin

Recent weeks have seen history-making collaborations among leaders of the African American and LGBT equality movements. In May, the national board of the NAACP endorsed marriage equality for same-sex couples, shortly after President Obama did the same. This month, LGBT leaders joined the NAACP and others in New York City to call for an end to the police department’s “stop and frisk” policy, which has targeted mostly African Americans and Latinos.

“In the last four years, with the increase in hate crimes across the country, with states attempting to encode discrimination into their state laws and constitutions,” NAACP President Ben Jealous told the Times, “it’s become clear that, just as Bayard Rustin admonished us all, that we would either stand together or die apart.”

That comment certainly led many readers to ask, “as who admonished us?” Bayard Rustin’s pivotal role as advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and as organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech) should have assured his place in American social and political history.

But Rustin has long been denied his proper place—largely because he was an openly gay man.

A Single Human Family

In this centennial of his birth, Rustin’s work is taking on a renewed significance, as conservative (mostly religious) voices within the African American community resist the expanding embrace of LGBT rights by African American elected officials and civil rights leaders—and as proponents and opponents of LGBT equality contend for the moral mantle of the civil rights movement.

Rustin, who became active in the gay rights movement in his later years, wrote eloquently about the need for activists to build coalitions for the elimination of all injustice. 

Indeed, Rustin’s work with King was only part of a life whose influences on the advance of freedom and justice are only beginning to be recognized. Rustin attributed his activism to his Quaker upbringing, and the idea of “a single human family” in which all members are equal. 

Those same values are reflected in Rustin’s wide-ranging activism. He was active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) from its 1942 founding and participated in CORE campaigns such as the 1947 Freedom Rides. He was arrested and convicted in North Carolina and served 22 days of hard labor on a chain gang. He helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and events like the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom and National Youth Marches for Integrated Schools. He advocated a feminism inclusive of women of different races and social classes. He opposed the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. He maintained a vital lifelong interest in the independence of African nations, visiting Africa several times. He advocated for labor rights and was a longtime ally of union leader A. Philip Randolph, for whom he continued to work after the March on Washington.

And, consistent with the long Quaker tradition of pacifism (“all wars and fightings with carnal weapons we deny”) Rustin was a tireless peace activist, working with both the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League. He was himself a draft resister during World War II and was imprisoned from 1944 to 1947 as a result of his disobedience to the 1940 Conscription Act. In the 1950s, Rustin was active in the movement for nuclear disarmament and an end to testing of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps most significant historically is the key role he played in bringing Gandhian nonviolence into the Civil Rights movement. During the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin convinced King to get rid of guns intended for self-defense, making a defining impact on the civil rights movement and its moral authority.

Quaker, Not Spartan

Quakers had a long presence in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where Rustin was raised by his maternal grandparents (his grandmother Julia was a Quaker—his grandfather a member of the A.M.E. Church). The state’s founder, William Penn, had established a “Holy Experiment” with extensive religious and political freedoms—but he and many other early American Quakers owned slaves. A growing Quaker abolitionist movement gathered strength from a 1688 protest. Against eighteenth century biblical justifications for slavery, Quakers insisted on “continuing revelation,” the idea that God continues to speak to humanity—it was that “Light of Christ within” that brought them to support abolition.

The Quakerism of the Delaware Valley is not creedal, but is structured around “testimonies” collectively observed and interpreted. They are more than just values. According to theologian Wilmer Cooper, “Quaker testimonies are derived from religious faith and experience fashioned out of a life of prayer, devotion, and worship, joined with spiritual discernment and commitment.” Lists of testimonies differ slightly, but most are agreed that four are especially important: equality, peace, integrity, and simplicity (or plainness).

Rustin, who in his adult years belonged to the Fifteenth Street Friends Meeting in New York City, certainly gave evidence of those testimonies, though not always in a traditional way.

Simplicity, or plainness, is perhaps the most difficult of the Quaker testimonies to define. In his communication, Rustin was a paragon of plainness; he was plain-speaking and direct. Like other contemporary Quakers with means, however, if simplicity is defined to center on simplicity of possessions, this Quaker testimony fit Rustin less well than the others, and he surely knew it. He was a connoisseur of fine food and wines. He had an outstanding collection of antique furniture, and late in life he had an extraordinary collection of canes. In short, he liked the finer things of life, and he was not embarrassed about it. One of his friends called him “a Quaker who wasn’t as Spartan-like as his brethren.”

Rustin’s witness to the Quaker testimony of integrity may have been the most impressive. Integrity includes truth-telling, but it is more than just that. It calls for authenticity, genuineness, and wholeness in one’s personhood. In religious terms, it calls for faithful obedience to the Light Within.

Many aspects of Rustin’s life illuminate his great integrity, but none more so than how he dealt with his sexuality. Rustin was a gay man, and he was open about his sexuality long before it was safe to do so. His lack of guilt about his sexuality was in part a gift from his Quaker grandmother. When he shared with her his enjoyment of socializing with other men, she had cautiously affirmed him: “I suppose that’s what you need to do.” One of his lovers from the 1940s, Davis Platt, noted that Bayard never betrayed any sense of shame about his sexuality. “That was rare in those days.”

Behind the Scenes

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rustin worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a leading promoter of pacifist and antiwar movements. Rustin did not hide his sexuality from his co-workers, including peace activist, fellow Quaker, and FOR director A. J. Muste, who disapproved of Rustin’s sexuality but was unable to convince him to change. A crisis came in 1953 when Rustin was arrested on a “morals charge” in Pasadena, California, for having sex in a parked car with two men. Rustin resigned from FOR, his friendship with Muste at first broken, and later resumed only with great strain.

For years thereafter, Rustin worked mostly behind the scenes to avoid imperiling causes he cared about. For example, he was a vital member of the task force that wrote Speak Truth to Power, a 1955 American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) study that urged nonviolent responses to international challenges faced by the United States. But, in part at his own request, his name was omitted from the list of authors, a “regret[table] failure” that was rectified only in 2010 by a minute of the AFSC Board restoring his name to that list.

Martin Luther King relied on Rustin’s advice and expertise, but that did not always insulate the committed activist (or his role in the movement) from the climate of the time. Adam Clayton Powell, the powerful African American congressman from Harlem, threatened to spread false rumors that King and Rustin were having an affair in order to get King to cancel a planned protest at the 1960 Democratic convention. Rustin resigned from the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protect the movement, but shortly thereafter was counted on to work under A. Philip Randolph to organize the March on Washington.

King’s niece, Alveda, is an anti-gay activist who recently tried to rewrite history by claiming that Rustin had resigned because he tried and failed to get King to attach the “homosexual agenda” to the movement. Rustin himself addressed the question of his relationship with King in 1987:

It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would not have hired me. He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me. He was under such extraordinary pressure about his own sex life. J. Edgar Hoover was spreading stories, and there were very real efforts to entrap him. I think at a given point he had to reach a decision. My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement.

Rustin enthusiastically embraced the gay liberation movement that arose late in his lifetime. He encouraged work on laws to secure gay rights, while counseling that the public visibility involved in advocating for such laws was at least as important as the laws themselves. “Oppose all injustice” was his message to human right activists, and all concerned persons.

One has to fight for justice for all. If I do not fight bigotry wherever it is, bigotry is thereby strengthened. And to the degree that it is strengthened, it will thereby have the power to turn on me.

Rustin was consistently faithful to the truth that he found in his heart, even when that truth was enormously unpopular in society. He had the courage not only to advocate for and act on that truth, but also the wisdom to know how best to do so in the circumstances in which he found himself.

A hundred years after his birth, the work that LGBT and African American activists are taking up together is a tribute to Rustin’s wisdom, and to his courage.