Black History Month: Bayard Rustin

In celebration of Black History Month, first year Sociology student Bailey Hackett has written a series of blog posts casting a spotlight on a number of queer, black figures and groups who have been instrumental in advancing the cause of both black and LGBTQ+ rights. We’ll be publishing one every week during October. Follow Bailey’s queer history blog at A Little Gay Historia.


Born: 17 MARCH 1912 - Died: 24 AUGUST 1987


Known as a master of strategy, Bayard Rustin was a gay pacifist and activist, and was the Chief Organiser of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Here, Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I Have a Dream Speech’, which was followed by a speech by Rustin, outlining and highlighting the demands of the march.

Rustin was raised predominantly by his grandmother, Julia Rustin, who was a Quaker and the tenets of the faith were strongly interwoven into Rustin’s political beliefs. He was a pioneer in NVDA (non violent direct action). As young as his teenage years, Bayard was leading protests - organising his first as a college student at a segregated restaurant, where his black teammates were separated and made to sit on a balcony called ‘n***** heaven*.

Bayard would face multiple jail sentences in his life, mostly famously from being a conscientious objector to the World War II draft and in 1953 where he was arrested under a 'morals charge' for sleeping with two men in a parked car - even then Rustin protested, as he fought against the segerated conditions of the prisons, and the discrimination he faced because of his race and sexuality. 

In 1948, Rustin travelled to India to learn the peaceful resistance strategies of the recently assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. He also supported political causes during his time in India, such as the movement to gain India’s independence from Britain. Bayard brought these strategies back to the United States and was instrumental in shaping the Civil Rights Movement - moulding the politics of figures like Martin Luther King, who began to adopt non-violent political strategies when Rustin arrived to assist the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. In the weeks leading up to the march on Washington, Rustin worked tirelessly to make the march a success - he hired staff, organised the security, speakers and performers for the day, right down to giving advice on what food people should bring with them to the march. The late civil rights leader James Farmer recalls in his autobiography;  '...I must say that I have never seen such a difficult task of coordination performed with more skill and deftness.'

Following the Civil Rights era, Bayard would continue to work passionately - focusing his activism on the rights of gays and lesbians. In the later stages of his life, Rustin also worked on refugee affairs - founding the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees and serving as Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee of Freedom House. Rustin passed away in 1987, with beloved partner and fellow pacifist Walter Naegle by his side. Bayard Rustin’s place in history was brought to cultural forefront as he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 under the Obama administration. 

Check out our programme of Black History Month events at