Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Curtain of the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement was led by the most influential civil rights activists in history. Bayard Rustin applied his Quaker influences to inspire a nonviolent civil rights agenda.

May 20, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
bayard rustin photograph
Photograph of Bayard Rustin, via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston


The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling sparked the beginning of the long battle of the Civil Rights Movement. Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist who advised Martin Luther King Jr. and was deputy director for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He became a leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement through his teachings of nonviolent civil rights tactics. Rustin was also a prominent member of several civil rights organizations.


Early Life of Bayard Rustin

Portrait of Bayard Rustin, Courtesy of Walter Naegle, 1950, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Bayard Rustin grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was raised by his grandparents who were Quakers. His Quaker faith influenced his beliefs in nonviolent practices in the Civil Rights Movement and strong opposition to war. Rustin had the opportunity to meet with civil rights activists, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, during his childhood, because his grandmother was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).


After high school, Rustin attended Wilberforce University on a music scholarship as he was an excellent singer. Rustin had organized a protest against the poor-quality cafeteria food, causing him to lose his scholarship and leave the university in 1932. Rustin continued his studies at Cheyney State Teachers College before moving to Harlem, where he attended the City College of New York in 1937.


Rustin joined the Young Communist League (YCL) while attending City College since the Communist Party supported the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Shortly after World War II broke out, communists shifted their attention towards the war. Rustin ended his commitment with the YCL as they no longer focused on civil rights. Despite Rustin pulling out of the organization, his involvement with the Communist Party would continue to be frowned upon by others throughout his career.


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Another reason others did not highly favor Rustin as a civil rights leader was due to his homosexuality. He was openly gay in a time period that heavily discriminated against individuals who were homosexual. His homosexuality and participation in a communist organization are often attributed to why Bayard Rustin is not discussed as much as other prominent civil rights figures. However, Rustin is still recognized as a major influence on the Civil Rights Movement due to his nonviolent approach.


Bayard Rustin’s Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Photograph of Bayard Rustin (left) talking with Cleveland Robinson (right), Orlando Fernandez, 1963, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


In the 1940s, Rustin joined a number of civil and human rights organizations, such as the Fellowship Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Rustin was a key organizer for various campaigns and workshops for the organizations. A few years later, in 1953, Rustin was asked to resign from his position as race relations director of FOR due to being caught performing sexual acts with another male in Los Angeles, as it was illegal to do so at the time. However, this did not stop Rustin from continuing to expand on his career as an exceptional organizer for civil rights programs and organizations.


In 1941, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph and Rustin planned to organize a March on Washington with the goal of protesting segregation within the armed forces. Randolph canceled the march after President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the Fair Employment Act. The act outlawed discrimination in the military. Rustin wanted to expand his knowledge on the philosophies of nonviolence. He took a trip to India in 1948 to study Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence for seven weeks. He also spent time working with independence movements in Africa.


Different Perspectives: Bayard Rustin vs. Malcolm X

Portrait of Bayard Rustin (left) and Malcolm X (right), Herman Hiller (right image), collage created by the author, via The Legacy Project and Library of Congress, Washington DC


The values and beliefs of Bayard Rustin varied greatly from those of Malcolm X. Malcolm had more radical views and did not agree with Rustin that peaceful protest would be an effective tactic for gaining civil rights. Rustin believed that the people of America needed to work together in order to succeed. He called for the integration of Blacks and whites to accomplish social justice goals, while Malcolm X wanted separation as opposed to segregation.


In January 1962, the two had a chance to voice their different perspectives in a debate. Malcolm X explained that the new Black man did not want integration nor segregation but separation. His view was that Black and white communities should operate in their own world and have control over their own society, economy, and politics.


Rustin made a moving argument in the debate stating:


As we follow this form of mass action and strategic nonviolence, we will not only put pressure on the government, but we will put pressure on other groups, which ought by their nature, to be alive with us and they will have to stand up and be counter in their own interest.”


There were supporters for both sides. The Black community was rightfully angry towards whites and the government for mistreating African Americans since the time of slavery. Some wanted to peacefully fight for justice, while others agreed that taking more radical and violent actions was necessary to achieve the goals of the civil rights agenda.


Bayard Rustin Becomes Martin Luther King’s Right-Hand Man

Photograph of Bayard Rustin (left) with Martin Luther King Jr. (right), via The Legacy Project


Rustin and King met in Montgomery, Alabama, during a bus boycott in 1954. Prior to meeting Rustin, King was not very familiar with nonviolent civil rights strategies. Rustin encouraged King to resort to nonviolent practices to fuel his civil rights campaigns. While serving as MLK’s advisor, Rustin helped King write speeches and worked as his campaign organizer and nonviolence strategist.


The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was thought up by Rustin, which he introduced to King and the two became co-founders of the organization along with others. Rustin also organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom and Youth Marches for Integrated Schools alongside Randolph.


Rustin drafted several memos for King. He gave King an outline of events for the March on Washington and advised what topics King should discuss in his speech at the event. Rustin also drafted King’s memoir Strive Toward Freedom, an account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin was able to educate King on the importance of nonviolence, and in return, King valued Rustin’s knowledge and beliefs. The two made an unstoppably great team that hurled their civil rights agenda to the front of the movement.


1963 March On Washington For Jobs & Freedom

Protesters at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Warren K. Leffler, 1963, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Bayard Rustin was appointed as the deputy director for the 1963 March on Washington. He was in charge of organizing the march in just two months. Rustin had 200 volunteers who helped him put the march together and two offices in Harlem, New York and Washington DC. The Lincoln Memorial Program outlined the events for the demonstration.


The March on Washington took place on August 28, 1962, and is recognized as one of the largest peaceful protests in US history. The march was sponsored by a number of organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Urban League. During the event, several remarks were made by prominent civil rights figures, including A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, and Roy Wilkins. Malcolm X also attended the march despite his disagreements with peaceful protesting.


Some of the goals of the march included the integration of public schools, voter rights protection, and a federal works program. Over 200,000 people attended the demonstration, and people became inspired by the famous “I Have a Dream” speech made by Martin Luther King. The protest was successful in some of its goals as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the direct outcomes of the event.


After the March

Bayard Rustin pictured with partner Walter Naegle, via The Legacy Project


Rustin still felt there was much work to be done after the march despite its success. African Americans were still suffering economically. The Second World War helped reduce unemployment rates, but Rustin wanted to see the gap in racial economic disparities close. Rustin and Randolph attempted to develop the “Freedom Budget” in 1966, which would have guaranteed work for those willing and able to work. The budget was designed to benefit all people, but it was never passed.


For the next decade after the march, Rustin continued to advocate for racial equality and fight for economic justice. He moved into a Manhattan apartment in 1962. Rustin met Walter Naegle 15 years later while strolling through New York City. Bayard and Walter immediately hit it off and started dating and later lived together. In 1987, Rustin suffered from a ruptured appendix and was taken to the hospital. He went into cardiac arrest during his operation, which led to his death on August 24, 1987.


Commemoration of Bayard Rustin

Walter Naegle accepting the Posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for Activism on behalf of Bayard Rustin from Barack Obama, 2013, via The Legacy Project


Although Bayard Rustin’s story is not discussed as commonly as other prominent civil rights leaders, he is still recognized for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin has been commemorated for his work through several posthumous awards and honors. In 2013, he was awarded the Posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for Activism and the United States Department of Labor Hall of Honor Recipient. He was an honoree in the San Francisco Rainbow Honor Walk the following year. In 2019, Rustin was inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Monument. He was also pardoned from his 1953 conviction by California Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020.


Bayard Rustin worked behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement by using his knowledge of nonviolent philosophies. He was an intellectual individual with tremendous ideas and organizational skills. His passion for civil and human rights helped fuel key protests, campaigns, and organizations that pushed the civil rights agenda forward. Many viewed Rustin as an outsider during his time due to his early involvement with the Communist Party and homosexuality. Despite others’ judgments, Bayard Rustin continued to focus on what mattered the most: justice, peace, and equality for all. This led him to become one of the most quietly influential civil rights leaders in history.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.