Bayard Rustin played a major part in almost every freedom movement of the middle of the 20th century. His accomplishments are so numerous that they are hard to summarize: he organized the March on Washington in 1963, organized the first Freedom Rides in the early 1950s, protested Japanese Internment camps during WWII, was jailed as a conscientious objector during the later years of WWII, organized American opposition to Apartheid in South Africa, organized the Montgomery Bus Boycotts with Martin Luther King in 1956, and convinced FDR to desegregate the defense industry in 1941. He was a founding member of CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) and the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). He was the anonymous author of the famous pamphlet "Speak Truth to Power."
Even during his lifetime, he went largely unrecognized. Why have most people never heard of him? Because he was gay. The FBI would track him; being affiliated with him could tarnish reputations. And yet, he had such a formidable intellect and incredible organizing skills that many leaders kept him on despite the risk.
He was supporting himself as a nightclub singer in New York (incidentally, he had a remarkable music career as well, and sang with many of the blues and jazz greats of the time) when he became involved with the Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s.
Rustin became disillusioned with the party in the early 1940s. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and Stalin sent word to the Communist Party of the United States to shift its focus from civil rights (it had been encouraging the development of a separate nation in the southeastern United States!) to encouraging the US government to enter WWII against Germany. Rustin left the party almost immediately.
In the late 1940s, right after the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, Rustin went to India and met the leaders of the resistance. He took notes, and brought his ideas back. When he went to Alabama in the 1950s, he saw the charismatic potential of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King saw a great mentor in Bayard Rustin, and forged a strong friendship despite protests from his fellow ministers; the ministers wanted Rustin gone because of his homosexuality. King ignored them, of course, and the rest is history. King learned nonviolence from Rustin and Rustin helped King with logistics.
Even today, in the loonier corners of the internet, where white supremacists seek to discredit Martin Luther King, the first person they bring up is Bayard Rustin. It is a testament to King's courage and intelligence that he was able to ignore the "realists" in his movement and benefit from Bayard Rustin's mentoring.
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