[A photograph of Bayard Rustin]
In honour of the start of Black History Month, today’s Historical Hottie is the one and only Bayard Rustin – an all around historical badass that often gets written out of the “official” history of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Born in the state of Pennsylvania in 1912, Rustin was an outspoken socialist, Civil Rights advocate, and gay rights activist. As a Black gay man that was engaged in socialist politics and the Civil Rights Movement for much of his life, he was a constant target of hatred and violence amongst many, many groups in the United States (the FBI tried to use his supposedly “deviant” sexuality against him and the larger Civil Rights Movement, to name just one). He was one of the foremost leaders in the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, beginning in the early 1940s after he moved to Harlem.
Rustin is often overlooked or purposely forgotten in the history of the Civil Rights Movement because of his sexuality. Many different groups, both from within Black liberation movements and outside in broader American society, unfortunately criticized him due to his sexuality. Because of this, and also because of having been affiliated with the Communist Party, he was rarely given “public” notice despite serving as a key influencer, advocate, and adviser to some of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders (including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Without him, the Civil Rights Movement would be remembered in a vastly different way – yes, he was that important to the Movement (but I’m in no way reducing it down to just one man or a handful of people)! He took an intersectional approach to oppression and injustice in the United States, pulling together diverse intellectual and activist ideologies that attacked capitalist, racist, and homophobic power structures. Rustin passed away in 1987, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013.
Bayard Rustin was a revolutionary in more ways than one, and helps to remind us that the current struggles going on today amongst Black communities in the United States are not isolated events but instead are part of a much longer history. Here’s to Bayard Rustin and all the Black radicals like him that have fought + continue to fight oppression!
Rustin, Bayard. Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971.
Rustin, Bayard. Ed. by Bond, Julian. I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters. New York: City Light Books, 2012.