The man behind MLK Jr.

Adam Griffiths

Behind every successful man, there’s a woman or a gay man. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was no exception to the rule, but in the decades since the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, one of King’s teachers, allies and most trusted friends has fallen, more or less, into the pervading closet American history imposes on some of its greatest leaders.

In the viewpoint for the Jan. 20, 2003, issue of Time Magazine, Andrew Sullivan called Bayard Rustin “the invisible man … perhaps the most critical figure that many people have never heard of.”

Born in rural Pennsylvania, Rustin played a role in every major civil rights event from the 1940s to the 1970s. He was a follower of Gandhi and actively involved in international civil rights efforts. He was a churchgoer who graced his congregation with his smooth tenor voice. He was the characterization of the selflessness necessary to gain equal rights for blacks.

But Rustin was also a very proud gay man who refused to hide his sexuality. But after a 1953 “morals charge” for being caught performing oral sex on a man in car outside a Los Angeles hotel, he realized that his sex life would have to be forced into a backseat to his political career. As Sullivan writes, “having struggled for his dignity as an African American, he was still subject to the dehumanization implicit in homophobia.”

His arrest would be the card played against him for the rest of his life. It stuck in the minds of his friends, his allies and his enemies, most notably former Gov. Strom Thurmond. At a planned protest outside the Democratic National Convention in 1960, former Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. revealed Rustin’s past to the press. When Powell threatened to accuse Rustin and King of having a homosexual affair, King gave in to Powell, and Rustin resigned from King’s staff.

Despite opposition, Rustin always found a way of hiding his anger and frustration within the constraints of fighting minority battles on two fronts. He was an active, if not the leading, force behind the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, he cofounded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which helps raise money for civil rights causes worldwide.

But as the struggle for equality took a turn toward militancy, Rustin backed away from the issue, always a believer in pacifism and non-violent protest. As gay rights fell into the public eye near the end of his life in the 1980s, Rustin properly gauged the atmosphere in his contemporary United States on the issue and said, “25 to 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the U.S. was black people. The barometer for judging the feelings of people in regards to human rights is those who consider themselves gay, homosexual and lesbian.”

“And all these years later,” Sullivan writes in his conclusion, “that’s what endures: the memory of a man unbeaten by the hate around him.” Rustin believed it was normal to care about the person at one’s side, no matter his or her gender, race or sexual orientation.

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said 45 years ago. “I still have a dream” – a dream that applied to his gay best friend, teacher and adviser, too.

Adam Griffiths is a sophomore information design major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].