Bayard Rustin, the civil rights movement's forgotten man

Cathy Young / For Newsday /

Amid celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington, there have been many tributes to the oft-neglected main organizer of that historic event: civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

The story of this remarkable American, who died in 1987 at age 75, is of particular interest today because he was an openly gay man — and, near the end of his life, presciently spoke of gay rights as the freedom and equality issue of our time.

It is often said that Rustin’s sexuality was the reason he became the forgotten man of the civil rights struggle. Yet Rustin’s legacy has another fascinating side — which the recent tributes have largely evaded, just as many obituaries after his death evaded his homosexuality. In his later years, he was, on many issues, a conservative.

A number of articles on Rustin have mentioned that he was briefly a Communist in his youth and then a socialist, as well as a pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II. But that’s only half the story.

From the 1960s onward, Rustin was a passionate anti-Communist. His socialism was a support for government programs and strong labor unions to alleviate the market’s imbalances; for Rustin, as for many other Cold War liberals, it went hand in hand with unequivocal support for American democracy and opposition to Soviet totalitarianism.

Rustin’s pacifism, too, underwent a dramatic evolution — rooted in the idea that freedom was more important than peace.

“Whereas I used to believe that pacifism had a political value, I no longer believe that,” Rustin wrote.

While still committed to finding alternatives to war in defense of freedom, he stated that without such alternatives, it was “ridiculous” to simply talk about peace.

In the mid-1960s (as most media tributes won’t tell you), Rustin broke from the civil rights movement over its embrace of open opposition to the war in Vietnam, a stance from which he had tried to dissuade King.

Arch Puddington, vice president of Freedom House — with which Rustin was affiliated in his later career — writes that while troubled by the war’s brutalities, Rustin was “deeply disturbed by the prospect of Vietnam’s people coming under the domination of a totalitarian regime on the Soviet or Chinese model.”

He also opposed linking the cause of racial equality to a broad attack on American power.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin’s activism focused on global promotion of freedom. He was a strong supporter of Israel and a champion of refugees from Communist oppression, be it Soviet Jews or Vietnamese boat people.

While he worked against South African apartheid, he was extremely concerned about Soviet expansionism and the rise of brutal postcolonial dictatorships in Africa.

Domestically, Rustin was not only an outspoken opponent of black nationalism but a critic of affirmative action by means of race-based preferences, which he saw as a polarizing issue.

Rustin’s unpopular politics probably had at least as much to do with his near-erasure from civil rights history as did his sexual orientation. Yet these views make him even more of a hero.

A man who belonged to two minorities long excluded from the American promise of justice for all, Rustin not only fought to reclaim that promise but insisted that the American ideal of freedom — however imperfectly realized — was worth fighting for.

In November, Rustin will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is to be hoped that all the aspects of his dedication to liberty will be remembered at that time. His “right-wing” beliefs were an inalienable part of who he was and should not be relegated to a new, liberal-enforced closet.