Meet Bayard Rustin: MLK’s Secret Weapon


The Master Strategist 
By Emil Wilbekin 

Illustration by CJ Robinson

“If we desire a society in which men are brothers, then we must act towards one another with brotherhood. If we can build such a society, then we would have achieved the ultimate goal of human freedom.” — Bayard Rustin 

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the federal holiday created to commemorate the Civil Rights hero, Baptist minister, and activist assassinated in 1968 — for his vigilant service and leadership in dismantling segregation, obliterating systemic and structural racism, and encouraging peaceful protest as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we must also remember his trusted advisor Bayard Rustin.  

Bayard Rustin, a Native Son who died in 1987, is often a hidden figure in history. Like many Black gay men who historically played prominent roles in impacting racial justice, politics, entertainment, fashion, popular culture, film, performing and visual arts, literature, and business, Rustin’s existence, and contributions are anonymous. 

Native Son’s mission is to inspire, empower, and celebrate Black gay men. This includes ensuring that we amplify their narratives, contributions, and impact so we avoid erasure, and remain remembered, and recognized. Our collective stories and lived experiences matter as we continue to harness our collective power in amplifying our visibility, creating community, and advocating for ourselves. Mr. Rustin’s life and legacy were the embodiment of our mission and purpose. 

Bayard Rustin’s vision as a leader in civil rights, gay rights, socialism, and nonviolence was radically profound — he was also light years ahead of his time. Rustin was also a good friend, co-conspirator, and civil rights collaborator of James Baldwin. Much of Rustin’s perspective and ideology propelled Dr. King to prominence and pronounced influence. He was also a co-architect (along with A. Philip Randolph) of the 1963 March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Signs of Rustin’s influence on King and of King’s willingness to lean on Rustin were abundant,” wrote John D’Emilio in the biography Lost Prophet. “When SCLC convened late in September for its annual convention, Rustin’s language appeared all through King’s address. ‘Citizens do not have the moral or political right to dream up or engage in fantastic gimmicks to arouse public attention. Demonstrations are tactics, not principles.’ King declared that they had to look beyond public accommodations to jobs, housing, and quality education. ‘These areas require political action,’ he said.”

“When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” — Bayard Rustin

Rustin is a master strategist of social change who studied the workings of insurgent movements globally to better understand creating seismic shifts in altering institutional power and systemic policies. He wanted to shift the balance between white supremacy and racial justice, violence and cooperation, and wealth and poverty. Rustin was born in West Chester, PA on March 17, 1912, and Quaker beliefs influenced many of his core principals — there is God in everyone, each human being is of unique worth, value all people equally, and place great reliance on conscience as the basis of morality. 

Ironically, homophobia and colonized American morality quieted Rustin’s existence and profound contributions to the Civil Rights movement. He was a Black gay man living his life out loud and proud when society shunned homosexuality and considered it immoral. In the mid-20th Century, every state in America criminalized homosexual behavior — gay men could be arrested for touching hands in public, spending the night together, or making out in parked cars. In 1953, police officers arrested Rustin on “moral charges” for having sex with another man in a parked car in Pasadena, CA, where he spent nearly two months in jail. Political opponents weaponized his gayness to sabotage his career as an activist and leader in the Civil Rights Movement suppressing his deserved visibility and recognition.

“Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality.” — Bayard Rustin

In February 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom posthumously pardoned Bayard Rustin. “In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” Newsom said in a written statement according to The Los Angeles Times. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom — "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." Keiynan Lonsdale also portrayed Rustin in an HBO Max docu-series called Equal in October 2020.

Native Son recognizes Bayard Rustin as a maverick, an innovator, and a freedom fighter who lived his life authentically in service to the Black gay community, civil rights, and equity. His bold and brilliant ideologies and visions are still relevant today amid the current racial reckoning and the work of Darren Walker, Rashad Robinson, Alphonso David, Malcolm Kenyatta, Ritchie Torres, and Mondaire Jones to name a few, is evidence of his enduring influence. We stand on your shoulders and appreciate your commitment and courage to creating change for us.