By Gary Younge
When civil rights leaders met at the Roosevelt Hotel in Harlem in early July 1963 to hammer out the ground rules by which they would work together to organise the March on Washington there was really only one main sticking point: Bayard Rustin.
Rustin, a formidable organiser and central figure in the civil rights movement, was a complex and compelling figure. Raised a Quaker, his political development would take him through pacifism, communism, socialism and into the civil rights movement in dramatic fashion. In 1944, after refusing to fight in World War Two, he had been jailed as a conscientious objector. It was primarily through him that the leadership would adopt non-violent direct action not only as a strategy but a principle. “The only weapons we have is our bodies,” he once said. “And we have to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
Rustin was also openly gay, an attribute which was regarded as a liability in the early sixties in a movement dominated by clerics. His position became particularly vulnerable following his arrest in Pasadena, in 1953, when he was caught having sex with two men in a parked car. Charged with lewd vagrancy he plead out to a lesser ‘morals charge’ and was sent to jail for 60 days.
Some in the room that day believed all this made him too great a liability to be associated with such a high profile event. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, was candid. “I don’t want you leading that march on Washington, because you know I don’t give a damn about what they say, but publicly I don’t want to have to defend the draft dodging,” he said. “I know you’re a Quaker, but that’s not what I’ll have to defend. I’ll have to defend draft dodging. I’ll have to defend promiscuity. The question is never going to be homosexuality, it’s going to be promiscuity and I can’t defend that. And the fact is that you were a member of the Young Communist League. And I don’t care what you say, I can’t defend that.”
Wilkins did not get his way. Rustin would lead the march and do so brilliantly while Wilkins would be called upon to defend him and do so. Fifty years on the White House has announced that Bayard Rustin will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. The award marks the end of a journey for Rustin, who died in 1987: from marginalisation in both life and history to mainstream official accolade just in time for the 50th anniversary of arguably his crowning achievement – organising the march on Washington.