Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Remembering to take pride in the legacy of Bayard Rustin

Guest Opinion

Bayard Rustin, left, talks to a man about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Photo: Courtesy SF Human Rights Commission)
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If you are asking yourself, "Who is Bayard Rustin?" chances are, you are among good company. While Rustin was an openly gay lifelong champion for civil rights, his heroics are often missing from historical retellings. This absence hits hard in the context of a significant public discourse of our time: discussions about the African American perspective on LGBT rights.

Rustin, the openly gay organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and trusted adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., is long overdue for recognition. A review of Rustin's activism presents a picture of a fierce commitment to protecting human rights for all persons and economic justice. From defending the property of Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps to his work to strengthen labor unions to his leadership on ending South African apartheid and his lifelong commitment to pacifism and nonviolence, Rustin has a legacy that should make all Americans proud, particularly African Americans and LGBT Americans.

Ten years before he was to organize the most defining civil rights moment of our time, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California for participating in a homosexual act. He later pleaded guilty to a charge of "sexual perversion" and spent 60 days in jail, creating a public record that, like for many Americans with arrest and conviction records, would haunt him throughout his professional career. However, in spite, or perhaps in part because of this experience, Rustin became a skilled strategist, passionate orator, and tireless advocate for justice.

I offer this brief synopsis of Rustin's history to honor his legacy and perhaps reframe the consistent and false assertions that "African American" and "LGBT" are at odds and/or mutually exclusive. When Proposition 8 passed in California, news media were flooded with stories about the allegedly critical role the African Americans played in legalizing discrimination. Most recently, in North Carolina, many news outlets reported on the significant role African American churches played in galvanizing voters for a measure to ban same-sex marriage. This controversy received more media attention than the NAACP's historic endorsement for the freedom to marry. When, the day after the North Carolina vote, President Barack Obama announced that he supported the rights of same-sex couples to marry, allies and activists argued about the president's missed opportunity to sway the African American vote. Given Rustin's unwavering commitment to justice and acute political intelligence, his perspective would greatly enrich these discussions.

As a woman who is proudly African American and lesbian, I know that many in the black community struggle with LGBT rights. As in all types of communities across the country, this struggle results in strained relationships and difficult conversations with relatives, co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Rustin himself struggled with colleagues within the civil rights movement who helped obscure his central role in conceiving and executing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

In honor of Pride 2012, I invite you to join the San Francisco Human Rights Commission in celebrating Rustin's legacy. Marching under the theme "Pride in African American Contributions to LGBT Rights," the SFHRC Pride contingent will carry signs commemorating Rustin, whose 100th anniversary of his birth was earlier this year. Moreover, it will mark the kick off of SFHRC's campaign to reframe the race and sexual orientation dialogue and bring African American LGBT people and allies out of invisibility. It's fitting justice for a hero who relentlessly sought justice for us all.


Susan Belinda Christian was appointed to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission by Mayor Ed Lee in 2011.

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