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African American civil rights campaigner and gay rights activist, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), was in kinship care as a child.

Bayard Rustin was born into a Quaker family in West Chester, Pennsylvania on 17 March 1912. He was raised by his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Bayard’s mother was only sixteen when her son was born and he grew up thinking she was his sister.

Rustin’s grandmother was a significant influence in his later work. Julia Rustin was involved in the National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP) and community leaders—“such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune” (Stanford)—regularly visited Rustin’s childhood home.

Rustin moved to New York City in 1937. He undertook several university courses, for example, at City College of New York, while working odd jobs and travelling. However, he never completed a university degree. He was briefly associated with the Young Communist League—and then forever on the radar of the FBI—and also performed with the Josh White Quartet and on Broadway alongside Paul Robeson in John Henry, a musical adapted from the eponymous novel by Roark Bradford.

From 1941 to 1953, Rustin worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith social justice organisation. He also organised the New York branch of another group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).

Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, he led weekend seminars on nonviolent action for both groups. Rustin helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and he was also involved in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (CORE).

In 1953, Bayard Rustin was arrested in California for having sex with men. He served fifty days in prison and was subsequently registered as a sex offender.

…once outed, Rustin was completely open about his sexuality and was never ashamed. Criticism and discrimination over his sexuality led Rustin to have a more background role in the Civil Rights Movement. He never wanted his sexuality to have a negative effect on the Movement, which is often the reason that Rustin’s efforts are not widely known (Smithsonian).

Rustin was posthumously pardoned for the 1953 conviction in 2020.

Rustin served other prison sentences too. During WWI he was incarcerated for two years for being a conscientious objector and in 1947, with other CORE participants in a protest against segregated interstate bus travel, spent “22 brutal days on a North Carolina chain gang” (Stanford). Rustin’s report on his experience of the chain gang “led to reform of the practice of prison chain gangs” (Stanford).

During the 1950’s, Rustin became a friend and adviser to civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, and he came to influence King on the practice of nonviolent resistance, especially after spending seven weeks in India to study Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy.

In the summer of 1963, Rustin became involved with A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King and a group of civil rights, religious and labour organizations to prepare for the historic March on Washington at which King delivered his powerful “I Have A Dream” speech. Rustin was the principal organiser of the March, the largest peacetime demonstration ever held in the United States, with an estimated 250,000 people in attendance and many people travelling to Washington from all over the country. Rustin had little time to organise the protest, less than two months.

“As we follow this form of mass action and strategic nonviolence,” he said, “we will not only put pressure on the government, but we will put pressure on other groups which ought by their nature to be allied with us” (NPR).

Rustin was an effective organiser because “he paid attention to details.”

He knew how many sandwiches and portable bathrooms the March on Washington participants needed. He knew how to raise money, how to charter buses to Washington and how to negotiate with sound engineers to make sure King’s voice could be heard across the Mall when he delivered his climatic “I Have a Dream” speech (Baker).

Between 1965 and 1979, Rustin was president  of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, working with activist and unionist A. Philip Randolph—a long time mentor to Rustin—to “integrate unions and promote unions among African Americans” (Smithsonian).

During the 1980s, Rustin was a gay rights activist.

In a 1986 testimony of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill, Rustin stated that “gay people are the new barometer of social change.” He felt that injustice everywhere should not be tolerated and must be protested (Smithsonian).

Since Bayard Rustin’s death on 24 August 1987, several biographies have been written including Troubles I’ve seen (1997) by Jervis Anderson. A documentary about Rustin, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, was produced in 2003 by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer.

Bayard Rustin has been honoured with several venues named after him, such as the West Chester Rustin High School in his home town and the Bayard Rustin room at the Quaker Friends House in London, UK.

In 2013, Bayard Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Says Henry Louis Gates, Jr:

It is noteworthy that it was President Kennedy who made awarding the Medal of Freedom a presidential privilege in February 1963, the same year as the march.

Most recently, an autobiographic film – Rustin – about Rustin’s life and his organisation of the 1963 March on Washington has been produced by Higher Ground, a production company owned by Barack and Michelle Obama.


Blake, John. “This ‘American Gandhi’ never got the attention he deserved because he was gay. A new film may change that.” CNN, 18 November 2023.

Corley, Cheryl. “Bayard Rustin: The Man Who Organized The March on Washington.” NPR, 15 August 2013.

Gates, Henry Louis. “Who Designed the March on Washington?” 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, The African Americans website.

“Bayard Rustin. American civil-rights activist.” Britannica, 22 November 2023.

“Bayard Rustin (1912-1987).” National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian.

“Rustin, Bayard.” March 17, 1912 to August 24, 1987.” The Martin Luter King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.

Image available here.