He was seen in a flash in Selma, recognizable to those who knew by the hornrims and shock of erect salt and pepper. hair. The career of Bayard Rustin was like that: the indispensable man who receded when it was time to take stock of his achievements. But the organizer of the March on Washington was also an active and unapologetic homosexual, flesh and blood proof to J. Edgar Hoover that the Martin Luther King circle was replete with perverts and Communists. Far from being banished, Rustin, who spent sixty days in a California jail in 1953 on a “morals” charge, was one of MLK’s most trusted lieutenants. Despite considerable pressure King never left his side. In 1987 Rustin provided a lucid account about his relationship with King; The Advocate has done the service of re-publishing it.
Buzzfeed ran a biography in 2013 reliant on quotes from his partner Walter Naegle on the eve of Rustin’s posthumous receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The account is worth reading in full but a key excerpt: Rustin went to jail for refusing to serve in World War II, as unpopular a war effort to criticize as any in American history. But during Vietnam, Rustin “didn’t become a leader in the anti-war movement, but he didn’t support the war,” Naegle says. “He maintained his personal commitment to nonviolence, much more than many of his critics.”
The March on Washington marked a unique day in civil rights history, as it may have been the only moment in which so many factions of the movement agreed with each other. The various camps — the pacifists, the politicians, labor, the ministers — were all on the same page for a minute in terms of strategy and content.
The solidarity of this moment wouldn’t last through much of the ’60s. Rustin would eventually be accused by some pacifists of not being hard on LBJ because Johnson was rolling out the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs, which Rustin found so crucial to helping black people. Meanwhile, by 1968, King was on the outs with factions of the civil rights movement for being too concerned with peace and poverty. His speech at the Riverside Church decrying the Vietnam War was not well received by many black leaders (but was supported by Rustin). His fateful decision to go to Memphis to stand with the sanitation workers was derided by many movement leaders (but supported by Rustin).
The curious looking for the missing link between James Baldwin and Taylor Branch’s tome should read Lost Prophet, John D’Emilio’s biography.