Martin Luther King Jr. Day was originally promoted by labor unions and, shortly after the civil rights leader’s death, it was brought to Congress for a vote.
President Ronald Reagan signed the ensuing bill and it became law in 1983. Some states, however, refused to recognize the holiday or celebrate it. It was finally acknowledged by all 50 states for the first time in 2000.
Assumptions can be made as to why it took so long for that to happen; they shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. Whatever the reasons, the work Dr. King and others did in their lifetimes is all the more necessary to remember now.
MLK Day is not just a day to celebrate the important steps Dr. King himself took because he did not take them alone. He stood as the figurehead of a movement with many people behind the scenes organizing and planning. One of those people was Bayard Rustin.
Pacifist, Socialist, Quaker, Activist, Black, Gay – it is not generally an advisable task to encapsulate a human life in such labels. Bayard Rustin, however, had the qualities that make his life inspiring, in part, because of them.
Spit and you’ll hit a political article saying we are a divided nation, split between two poles with each side refusing to bend. With the increased influence of the far right wing, it seems like we are living in a political powder keg ready to explode into chaos and brutality.
While they might be disappointed in our lack of progress, King and Rustin, I believe, would see just another challenge, a hurdle to be surmounted, non-violently, and with open ears.
One could write, “Bayard Rustin organized the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” and call it a day. What else needs to be said? Isn’t that enough organizing for a lifetime?
Prior to the entrance of America into World War II, Rustin participated in the planning of a march in Washington, DC, to protest the exclusion of black Americans in the defense industry. President Roosevelt caught wind of this and not wishing to deal with whatever this march could turn into, perhaps recalling the debacle of the Bonus Army protests in ‘32, reversed his position.
Rustin joined a pacifist group and began speaking out publicly against segregation. He was arrested for “failing to appear” at the draft board and “refusing alternate service as a conscientious objector.” He served more than two years in prison because of this and ended in a high security facility after pissing off the people in charge with his protests and out-of-the-closet lifestyle.
After his release, he traveled to India to continue studying non-violence. When he returned to the US he wrote, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers, the only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
In 1956, Rustin went to Birmingham to meet and help with Dr. King’s bus boycott. Rustin introduced Dr. King to Gandhi’s teachings of non-violent protest.
Later, he also helped King establish the South Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was, “established by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and his followers in 1957 to coordinate and assist local organizations working for the full equality of African Americans in all aspects of American life.”
Rustin was a dangerous man at the time. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, for one, had been keeping an eye on Rustin for more than a decade at this point.
Rustin was openly gay and a socialist during the repressed Cold War era. King, for his part, was the powerful face of the Civil Rights movement.
Some were scared of the effect these two men could have on society, white society, polite society, straight society, so a wedge was placed between them.
Rustin had been arrested in California in 1953 when he was found having sex with two men in a car and served 60 days in jail. Shortly before a march that he and King were planning, there were threats that, if the protest occurred, a story would find its way into the papers that Rustin and King were “gay lovers”, which, it appears, was never actually the case.
Rustin was the “chief organizer” of the aforementioned March on Washington in which King played a most important part, but the men would never work together again publicly.
Some say King had to be persuaded to turn his back on Rustin. Some say King knew he had to and did what was necessary for the so-called larger good of the movement which Rustin understood was more important than his pride. Rustin chose to resign from the SCLC and continued his fight alongside, but not with, Dr. King.
In 1970’s and ‘80’s,. Rustin shifted his focus from black rights to gay rights. He once remarked, “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”
Rustin saw it as a moral imperative to be out. He lived at a time when it could and did lead to serious consequences. However, he knew from a young age that he had to be honest about himself and to stand as an example to those who felt they didn’t have the voice when he knew he did.
Rustin died in 1987, survived by his partner Walter Naegle who has served as the executive director of the Bayard Rustin Fund which is committed to preserving Rustin’s legacy.
We’re lucky to have had people of such caliber to look to as examples. Dr. King, for one, had his faults but as an old song goes, “Heroes don’t have to be role models.”
Heroes are a marker we hold ourselves to and the public work of Bayard Rustin and Dr. King is a marker well worth aspiring to.