Record of the Week: Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights and Gay Rights Activist

In Celebration of LGBT Pride Month

The post was written by Dr. Tina Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

Bayard Rustin was a believer in non-violence, a socialist, a civil rights organizer, and an openly gay black man. He was born on March 17, 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania and raised by his maternal grandparents, who exposed him to the Quaker Religion and civil rights activities and organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rustin attended Wilberforce University in Ohio and Cheyney State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. He was involved with several student organizations, including the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

This portrait of Bayard Rustin was taken on April 5, 1968 during a meeting between civil rights leaders and President Lyndon B. Johnson after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Serial #: A6015-23)

This portrait of Bayard Rustin was taken on April 5, 1968 during a meeting between civil rights leaders and President Lyndon B. Johnson after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Serial #: A6015-23)

Rustin played a major role in the civil rights and equality movements of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He was active in the Young Communist League, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rustin was instrumental in organizing, coordinating, and marketing the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1944, Rustin was sentenced to three years in federal prison for failing to report for the physical examination under the Selective Service Act during World War II. Rustin, who strongly believed in nonviolence, was a conscientious objector against the war. The Bureau of Federal Prisons, RG 129, Notorious Offenders Files, 1919-1975 (NAID 580698) contains records related to Rustin’s time in Ashland Federal Correctional Institute in Kentucky. The file unit Rustin, Bayard (NAID 18558235) relates to his various activities in federal prison. Included in the file unit are letters and telegrams sent by fellow activists and religious mentor A. J. Muste. The file unit also contains allegations of homosexual behavior, defiance, and attempts to organize other inmates around the issues of  racial discrimination and segregation, as seen in the many disciplinary reports filed by prison officials.

Bayard Rustin passed away on August 24, 1987. He received numerous awards and accolades for his work in the civil rights and gay communities. Some of these honors include several buildings and LGBT organizations named after him. Rustin was posthumously given honorary membership in Delta Phi Upsilon, a fraternity for gay and bisexual men of color and in 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Other file units and items at the National Archives and Presidential Libraries related to Bayard Rustin include:

  • Focus on Bayard Rustin (NAID 2812560) from the series Sound Recordings of Historical Radio Broadcasts, World War II Government Documentaries, and Popular Radio Shows, 1906-1993 (NAID 1487762)
  • Rustin, Bayard (NAID 6095297) from the series Janet McMahon’s Newspaper Columnist Files, 1977-1981 (NAID 6094325)
  • Black Photographs- Martin Luther King, Sr., Coretta Scott King and Bayard Rustin (NAID 6119543) from the series Marc Henderson’s Subject Files, 1977-1981 (NAID 609638)
  • Chicago, [Illinois] – 157-717-Sub A-v.4 [Classification – Civil Unrest] — Bayard Rustin (NAID 5575056) from the series Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files, 1957-1978 (NAID 1487609)
  • Schoolhouse: Bayard Rustin (NAID 107741) from the series Audio Recordings of the “Forum” Radio Program, 1940-1982 (NAID 106531)

On Thursday, June 25, 2015, the Stonewall Employee Affinity Group and the Afro-American History Society at the National Archives will show the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin at 11:30 am in Lecture Room D at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

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One Response to Record of the Week: Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights and Gay Rights Activist

  1. Leslie Watson says:

    It is very refreshing to hear about Civil Rights activists who are not commonly known like Dr. King or Rosa Parks. Bayard Rustin had two groundbreaking areas that he represented and he appeared to be ahead of time. I am sure there are a lot of other activists who help pave the way for us to enjoy better times. However, there is still racism that we must confront in order to have a total free society.

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