Bayard Rustin: The Gay Dreamer Behind Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech

Bayard_Rustin Today commemorates the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, which could not have happened without the guidance of openly gay civil rights pioneer, Bayard Rustin. Portions of this story originally appeared in Eight LGBT African-Americans Who Changed the Gay Community.  

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream—and a gay ally who helped make it come true.

A pacifist and activist, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) learned to take a nonviolent yet effective stand for equality from his grandmother, Julia, and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In his youth, Rustin rallied against Jim Crow laws and the racially charged case against the Scottsboro boys.  Later, he debated Malcolm X, stressing the importance of seeing the world’s various races as one big family.

Rustin first met King in 1956, when Rustin helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He educated MLK in Gandhian nonviolent protest principles and went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where King made his immortal “I have a dream” speech.

But Rustin’s homosexuality posed a problem: some civil rights leaders took issue with it, while members of the U.S. government used Rustin’s sexuality—and his arrest in 1953 for a “sex perversion” offense—to undermine his effectiveness. Strom Thurmond blasted Rustin as a “communist, draft-dodger and homosexual” and had his arrest file entered in the congressional record.  (Thurmond also produced an FBI photo of Rustin and MLK chatting while the latter was taking a bath, to suggest the two were lovers.)

Before views about homosexuality softened, much of Rustin’s accomplishments in the civil-rights movement went unsung—though they are chronicled in the brilliant documentary Brother Outsider.

By the 1970s, Rustin began championing gay rights more directly: In a 1986 speech, “The New Niggers Are Gay,” he drew an explicit connection between the struggles of the black and LGBT communities:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new ‘niggers’ are gays. It is in this 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.”

Earlier this month, Rustin was named as one of the 16 honorees to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work as “an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all…As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”

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  • 2eo

    How to know someone is a great person, the American government labels them as a “communist, draft-dodger and homosexual”.

    I don’t think there is a plaudit high enough for a man like Rustin, he’s a guy people with the same award wouldn’t mention themselves alongside him.

  • Billysees

    @2eo: 1

    Interesting comment.

  • iMort

    Amazing! I had not been aware of this person, thank you Queerty.

  • AshNYC

    Bayard Rustin has been an “unsung hero”. I highly recommend Brother Outsider if you want to be inspired by how much an individual can truly affect change in the world. He’s on the level of Harvey Milk in my opinion.

  • GayTampaCowboy

    I wish more of those who DENY that the gay rights movement is an extension of the civil rights movement!

  • Charles175

    The fact that Bayard Rustin was not only gay but open and honest about it is a great thorn in the side of religious people and religious leaders. These continue to try to erase this fact and claim that Martin Luther King Jr. supposedly would’ve never approved of somebody like this being the backbone of his civil rights crusade. This is why it’s so important to keep alive the fact that gays have contributed so much to society. To keep this history alive and in the light of true raw accuracy without bias. This is of paramount importance in order to combat the lies as stated by religious people and their illustrious leaders.

  • Matt1961

    Wow, such an interesting and influential guy. Organized, Intelligent, Gay, and had a life partner in Walter Naegle who was 37 years his junior. In order for them to protect Walter from losing everything when Rustin died, Rustin adopted Naegle as his son. Too bad they couldn’t just get married. I’m proud that Bayard will be receiving the Medal of Freedom, he is the type of person that award was meant for.

  • Teleny

    Bayard was a true hero. Too many have forgotten or never knew about his critical role in the Civil Rights movement.

  • LadyL

    It’s about time this man got some love! It’s appalling that so many young people, black and white, have no idea who he is, what he did, or why he (still) matters. Both Congressman John Lewis and the late Coretta Scott King among others have expressed regret that he was pushed to the background to protect the fight for civil rights. I’m so glad Bayard Rustin is finally starting to receive his due!

  • Kangol

    One of my heroes!

  • Billysees

    This article and a White House event has made me aware of this man and the things he did.

    I think we can easily say that “Gay Greats” come into the world and most of the time they and their works are not recognized as such until after they’re dead.

    Alan Turing is another such person who comes to mind.

  • Billysees

    @Charles175: 6

    Very good comment, Charles175.

    ” This is why it’s so important to keep alive the fact that gays have contributed so much to society. To keep this history alive and in the light of true raw accuracy without bias. “

  • Redpalacebulleaglesox

    One of the darkest moments of the movement was when Dr. King had to tell Bayard to lay low due to the FBI’s harassment and President Johnson advising him to cut ties with Bayard. It is almost comical that J. Edgar forced this humiliation, given his own activities. It reminds me of Roy Cohn, our favorite self-hating Jew and self-hating gay, who went after the US Army because they wouldn’t give his boyfriend a draft deferment.

  • Chris

    Thank you for a interesting history lesson.

  • Thad1527

    One of the three high schools in the West Chester Area School District is now named for West Chester’s native son, Bayard Rustin. I live not far away and have cousins in the district, and I’m proud he has been so honored.

Comments are closed.