In history, there are thousands of heroes who have fallen into the shadows of time: men and women who were the driving forces behind great historic moments and who have been overlooked in favor of their more famous counterparts. Such is the case with Bayard Rustin. He is the real hero behind King’s historic March on Washington where the “I have a dream” speech was recited, and he is the one who deserves the credit.
As thousands gather on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin is beginning to emerge from the shadows. He fell into them in the first place because he was an openly gay man at a time when that was simply unheard of. He was a man who refused to bow down to societal pressures. He was shaking the status quo to its foundation as early as 1930, and he was the conceptualizer, fund-raiser, organizer and driving force behind the March on Washington.
Bayard Rustin is always there. You can see him standing in the background of nearly every grainy, black and white civil rights clip you’ve ever watched. He stands, always, behind Martin Luther King Jr., contented to remain nearly invisible while his power and brilliance provided the foundation, structure, and materials for the very concept of the civil rights movement in America.
He was Martin Luther King’s go-to man, even after Rustin had been demonized and marginalized for being gay. King relied on Rustin for everything: advice, support, ideas and the fruition of those ideas. Rustin was the original civil rights pioneer. By 1963, the year the March on Washington took place, he had been in the game for over 30 years. His experience and wisdom was crucial in providing King direction for everything King did.
Rustin wasn’t just the organizer of events; he was also the conceptualizer of how the entire civil rights movement should operate. He conceived the idea of peaceful resistance and non-violent demonstrations. In 1947, he staged a protest for racial equality, which he described in a 1985 interview with journalist Ed Edwin:
…(In) 1947, we were going to create a nationwide protest with nine blacks and nine whites who would go into buses all over the upper south with blacks sitting in the front and the whites sitting in the back to challenge this. This was known generally as the first Freedom Ride. It was called “The Journey of Reconciliation.” As a result of the Journey of Reconciliation a number of black and whites were jailed. That was my first experience on a chain gang. In late 1947, early 1948 I spent thirty days on a chain gang, as well as did a number of whites and other blacks.
In 1955, Bayard Rustin was a key figure in organizing the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. It was this boycott that propelled Martin Luther King to national fame. Rustin had tirelessly fund-raised, made thousands of phone calls recruiting people to participate and executed the boycott with energetic enthusiasm.
Rustin refused to hide who he was, and his refusal prompted prominent civil rights leaders to insist he stay in the background. He was arrested under an anti-gay law in 1953, and his arrest led to his being excommunicated from the favor of many of his former colleagues. However, his experience and intellect was too great to be ignored for long, and historians note that Martin Luther King reached out to him for assistance with shaping the ideas that drove the civil rights movement. He was one of King’s key advisors, and the sheer labor he put into organizing the March on Washington superseded the efforts of any other person. He raised money, organized hundreds of volunteers and personally got thousands of people to participate in the march, all in just two months’ time.
It wasn’t just King who called upon him, though; other civil rights leaders reached out to him frequently for his council on all matters pertaining to the movement. Later in his life he became a gay rights activist and finally, toward the end of his life, a humanitarian, traveling to war-torn countries to give comfort and resources to civilians.
Bayard Rustin has been purposely hidden from the public because of his sexual orientation, and American students have been robbed of learning about his accomplishments. He is the real hero behind the March on Washington, and he deserves the credit. It’s time he stepped out of the shadows.
By: Rebecca Savastio
For more information on Bayard Rustin, watch “Brother Outsider,” a documentary on Rustin’s life.