Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is only a few days away and soon the nation will once again remember and honor a martyr to the cause of civil rights. In a previous article entitled Civil Rights Hero - Martin Luther King, Jr. we paid homage to this man who effectively changed life as we know it for all the races in the United States. His wife, Unsung Civil Rights Hero - Coretta Scott King by his side, he was able to undo decades of ill treatment, dehumanization, and state sponsored indignities that were rained upon “coloreds.” Yet Mr. and Mrs. King, Jr. did not do so alone and by themselves, but instead surrounded themselves with likeminded allies who worked just as tireless and as determined to see justice done and equality achieved.
One such ally was Bayard Rustin. Born in 1912, Mr. Rustin was a native of West Chester, Pennsylvania. A life-long student, Mr. Rustin never lost his Quaker roots that demanded the ethical and peaceful treatment of fellow humans, no matter their color, creed, politics, or even sexuality. Once noted and always maligned for his early ties to the communist party, he later became disillusioned with the set and instead remained true to his democratic socialist roots. Pacifist through and through, he endured three years in prison for refusing to register for the draft or accepting the token service open to Quakers.
Bayard Rustin’s accomplishments read like the curriculum vitae of a man committed to a noble cause, and one of his crowning achievements was the collaboration with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that became the famous 1963 March on Washington. Yet perhaps this very accomplishment also became the spotlight that suddenly shone on the early hypocrisy within the civil rights movement itself: homophobia. Mr. Rustin’s openly gay lifestyle had many of the more conservative voices calling for Dr. King’s distancing himself from Mr. Rustin. While Dr. King did give in at times to these demands, he refused to do so completely.
It saddens many to see that this great man was oftentimes openly shunned by his contemporaries, even though he was fighting against the common enemy of racism. At the same time, it is comforting to note that toward the end of his life Mr. Rustin was able to not only speak out about the racial prejudices he had to endure, but also the anti-gay prejudice he was forced to endure.
Sadly his name is not often mentioned on Dr. King’s day of remembrance, yet in all fairness, Bayard Rustin’s role in the civil rights movement demands a mention now as well as in the future.
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