Over the past few years I have spent MLK day either out in service or working with my institution on an events that center his experiences and the wonderful work he did for the Black community. For many of us, much of the work that MLK did is not only timely, but necessary, considering where many of us are mentally as we go into inauguration on January 20.
Like most, we celebrate MLK's legacy year round because honestly, it would take us more than a day to give him all of his due diligence. But like several of my Black queer counterparts, I asked myself the question as to why Bayard Rustin, the man who helped MLK achieve many of his wins, only get recognized by those in the Black LGBTQ community. So this year, I thought it would only be fair to take some time and shed light on one of the most undervalued people of the civil rights movement and why it may seem that he, along with several other Black LGBTQ figures, never seem to get the recognition they deserve.
It's important to first recognize that without Bayard, there would not have been a civil rights movement. Several (strategic) things done in the time that MLK lead the movement was ultimately designed and ran through Bayard for feedback. Events like the March on Washington and the event that took place at Selma needed Rustin's expertise in order to be successful because his ways of organizing was seen to be more inclusive. Rustin believed that in order to make real change, everyone must play a part.
So you might ask, "If he was so great, why wasn't he given the same platform that Martin Luther King was given?" To answer that, Bayard's legacy wasn't one that he chose. Simply stated, Bayard knew that society would not support a queer Black man leading the liberation movement, hence why several leaders kept him out of the forefront.
Note: We saw the same thing take place when Deray McKesson stood up for Black Lives back in March of 2015. History always repeats itself.
Ultimately, Rustin was seen as a liability to the movement. To boot, his "Quaker" ideologies did not align with the movement as a whole, thus causing Rustin's name to be pushed out of the foreground of the civil rights movements.
Adding insult to injury, Rustin was accused of not only being MLK's gay lover, but was also shut out by MLK due to the negative press the movement received by having him in charge. During his life, he was arrested on several occasions because of his sexuality and more, he was investigated by the FBI for claims that he had participated in sexual acts with men in public. Although Rustin became more public and open about his sexuality within the last years he actively participated with the movement, Rustin ultimately began preaching the message that he thinks that the gay community had a moral obligation in helping to end the divide of sexuality and race, later leading to what Kimberlé Crenshaw coined as intersectonality.
Overall, Rustin, for that time, was a rebel. He knew that walking in his truth could and would cost him the legacy that he had worked so hard to attain. While there have been several stories and documentaries that have come out about the life that Rustin led, it is safe to say that the "movement" wasn't as inclusive as it should have been.
Although MLK deserves a great deal of shine today for all he did for the civil rights movement, its important to recognize the intersectional contributions made to said movement by the "other".
Today, lets continue to have conversations about ways we can make all movements more inclusive and how we can continue to celebrate those who are often erased from the history books because they choose not to deny themselves of the rights they fight so hard to attain.
To learn more about Bayard and the amazing life he led, watch the film: "Brother Outsider".