Welcome to the Evolving Man Project’s ‘Evolved Man of the Week’ profiles. Each week we will highlight an individual that embodies what it means to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous men alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the civil rights organizer and activist, Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912. He moved to New York in the 1930s and was involved in pacifist groups and early civil rights protests. Combining non-violent resistance with organizational skills, he was a principal adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Though he was arrested several times for his own civil disobedience and open homosexuality, he continued to fight for equality. He died in New York City on August 24, 1987.

Rustin attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, and Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheney University of Pennsylvania) in Pennsylvania, both historically black schools. In 1937 he moved to New York City and studied at City College of New York. He was briefly involved with the Young Communist League in the 1930s before he became disillusioned with its activities and resigned.

In his personal philosophy, Rustin combined the pacifism of the Quaker religion, the non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph. During the Second World War, he worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-related hiring. After meeting A. J. Muste, a minister, and labor organizer, he also participated in several pacifist groups, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Rustin was punished several times for his beliefs. During the war, he was jailed for two years when he refused to register for the draft. When he took part in protests against the segregated public transit system in 1947, he was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks. In 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge for publicly engaging in homosexual activity and was sent to jail for 60 days; however, he continued to live as an openly gay man.

While there is a recurring tendency to describe Rustin as a pioneering “out gay man”, the truth is more complicated. In 1986, Rustin was invited to contribute to the book In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. He declined, explaining:

I was not involved in the struggle for gay rights as a youth. …I did not “come out of the closet” voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. …I fundamentally consider sexual orientation to be a private matter. As such, it has not been a factor which has greatly influenced my role as an activist.
Bayard Rustin stands as one of the key organizers of one of the most iconic and historic marches on our nation’s capital. He was a crucial player in the Civil Rights movement. Due to his sexuality, he was pushed into the background as an agent of change while the likes of MLK, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X are more well-known figures of that era. Still, Bayard was a trailblazer despite rising to prominence during an intensely homophobic time period.
Rustin’s biography is particularly important for lesbian and gay Americans, highlighting the significant contributions of a gay man to ending official segregation in America. Rustin stands at the confluence of the great struggles for civil, legal, and human rights by African-Americans and lesbian and gay Americans. In a nation still torn by racial hatred and violence, bigotry against homosexuals, and extraordinary divides between rich and poor, his eloquent voice is still needed today. Today we honor Bayard Rustin as our Evolved Man of the Week. 
Bayard Rustin 2

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