The late Bayard Rustin, human and civil rights activist and strategist—a gay black man and the lead organizer of the landmark March on Washington—left a legacy still relevant today. As we commemorate the march’s 50th anniversary we are reminded that much work remains to realize Rustin’s vision for peace, justice, and economic equity for all, especially for black LGBT Americans.
“One has to fight for justice for all. If I do not fight bigotry wherever it is, bigotry is thereby strengthened. And to the degree that it is strengthened, it will thereby have the power to turn on me.” – Bayard Rustin
Most Americans who have heard of Bayard Rustin know him by the historical taboo of his identity—that he was both black and gay—and as the man who orchestrated the landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, more popularly known as the March on Washington. But the individual behind these labels was so much more complex, and his impact within and beyond the civil rights movement was much more profound than this description suggests.
The radical nature of Rustin cannot be underscored enough. To be a not-so-closeted gay man and thrive in the conservative upper echelons of black society during the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s was indeed remarkable. His lifetime of navigating race and sexuality—his “time on two crosses,” as coined by George Chauncey Jr. in his interview with Rustin just before his death in 1987—is iconic for LGBT people of color today, who find inspiration in his story as they wrestle with many of the same cultural and political dichotomies that he faced.
Rustin’s identity undoubtedly shaped his worldview, his political and policy positions, and his fundamental belief in the solidarity of struggle for equal civil and human rights for all oppressed people, be they poor, black, Jewish, Hispanic, or gay. But the popular fixation with his identity alone runs the risk of eclipsing the significance of his policy contributions.
First and foremost, Bayard Rustin was one of the most profound thought leaders of his day, shaping movement-building strategies and ideas on nonviolent protest, economic justice, civil rights, gender equity, and LGBT equality that are foundational to today’s progressive agenda. He not only acted as the strategist who organized the March on Washington, but he also played a key role in developing the policy agenda presented at the march that ultimately transformed the nation’s civil rights, labor rights, and education and housing policies—and put in place the equal-opportunity and nondiscrimination laws that we have today. Most crucially, economic justice was a central theme of the March on Washington, as Rustin and Cleveland Robinson, chairman of the Administrative Committee, understood that there could be no true equality in the face of economic deprivation.
“We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis. That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom.” – Bayard Rustin, Organizing Manual No. 2, March on Washington, 1963
It is this lesson and its impact on LGBT people of color that we explore here. We commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by uplifting some of the political ideas and calls to action of the man behind the march that are still instructive today. Specifically, we turn a critical eye on the economic security—or lack thereof—of the black LGBT community to which Rustin belonged, analyze where we are now as a community, and discuss what we must do going forward to continue to realize his dream. While we focus on the black LGBT community, we are mindful that economic justice is also a critical theme for the LGBT movement overall.