When most people think of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, they think of Martin Luther King Junior, the crowds, the 'I Have a Dream' speech, and all with good reason. Yet one of the chief organizers of the event, Bayard Rustin, remained carefully and pointedly out of the spotlight. Why? Why was a man who was so integral to the nonviolent resistance movement and to the civil rights movement as a whole sidelined?
The main reason was that he had a criminal record. In 1953, Bayard Rustin was arrested for what was then considered a crime: being a homosexual. Yet Bayard never shied away from who he was, and carefully crafted himself to work hard for the changes he sought from society, just rarely putting himself in the position of spokesperson to avoid his character being the subject of the spotlight as opposed to the ideals he championed (most famously, Strom Thurmond attempted to attack Rustin and Martin Luther King Junior by entering a picture into the Congressional Record of Rustin talking to a bathing Martin Luther King Junior, as if to imply the men had a 'special relationship'). After the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rustin moved on to advocating stronger ties of the civil rights movement to the Democratic Party and the integration of labor unions. By the seventies and eighties, Rustin had begun actively advocating for gay and lesbian rights as well, continuing to champion equality for all until his death in 1987.
Just recently, on November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to honor his tireless work for equality. To honor the great work of this man, why not check out some of his writings from your local library branch? Or perhaps an excellent documentary on his life to learn more?