Profiles of LGBT people, from the past and today – and celebrating their birthdays! All Birthdays →

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was born into an African American family on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Rustin was raised by his grandparents, who were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His grandmother was a Quaker, which influenced Rustin's commitment to nonviolence. While attending City College of New York in the 1930s, Rustin joined the Young Communist League, but he left the Communist Party in 1941. Rustin was appointed youth organizer for the proposed 1941 March on Washington and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation around that time. In 1942 Rustin helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and participated in the Journey of Reconciliation. Rustin also served as the executive secretary of the War Resisters League. In 1953, however, Rustin was arrested in California for “sexual perversion” and told to resign from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. 

In the 1950s, Rustin became a key advisor for Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, and the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1963, A. Philip Randolph appointed Rustin Deputy Director of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, despite concerns expressed by some African American leaders about his sexual orientation, his past Communist Party affiliation, and his status as a conscientious objector during World War Two. He was widely credited for the success of the March, which featured King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Rustin’s commitment to non-violent resistance drew him away from the Black Power movement in the late 1960s and 1970s; he argued for a shift “from protest to politics,” which for him meant transforming the Democratic Party into a vehicle for social democratic politics. In 1965, Rustin founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute. In the 1970s Rustin worked with Freedom House on international human rights issues. In 1986 Rustin testified in favor of the New York State gay rights bill before passing away on August 24, 1987. In 2013 Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Barack Obama. For more on Bayard Rustin’s life, see Marching for Jobs and Freedom by Claire Potter and John D’Emilio.