Social Change: Bayard Rustin's Fight for Our Rights

Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist, a gay rights activist, an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, and a humanitarian. Rustin had ever-evolving ideologies and affiliations, however, his political philosophy had always been tied to pacifism, socialism, and the theory of non-violent protests, which he learned from Mahatma Gandhi.

Early Life

Bayard Rustin was born in West Chest, PA to Florence Rustin and Archie Hopkins, but raised by Florence’s grandparents. He grew up believing his mother, Florence, was his older sister. Rustin’s grandmother was a member of the NAACP, so he frequently had leaders of the organization in his home throughout his childhood, which led him to campaign against Jim Crow laws.

Rustin first realized his sexuality when he mentioned to his grandmother that he preferred spending time with men rather than women. She responded, “I suppose that’s what you need to do.” Rustin attended Wilberforce University, an HBCU in Ohio. He joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity but was later expelled from the university in 1936 after organizing a strike. He then enrolled at Cheyney State Teachers College. In 2013 he was honored with a posthumous “Doctor of Humane Letters” degree.

Civil Rights Movement

Bayard Rustin was a well-known advocate for the civil rights movement all over the world. In 1947, he served 22 days in prison for violating Jim Crow laws in North Carolina. In 1948, he traveled to India to learn techniques from Gandhian and participate in peaceful protests. Between 1947 and 1952 he met with leaders of independence movements in Ghana and Nigeria.

In 1956, Rustin became an advisor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Gandhian tactics. He helped Dr. King organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1963, he helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While organizing these protests, many tried to discredit and blackmail Dr. King and Rustin by making false allegations of a same-sex relationship between the two. Rustin was forced to hide behind the scenes on many protests and activism affairs due to his sexual orientation and circulating rumors.

Rustin eventually moved into an advisory role for many Democratic campaigns and helped advise many elected politicians. He pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was instrumental in establishing ties between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party.

Gay Rights Movement

Bayard Rustin, on the left, and Walter Naegle, on the right, smiling and posing for the picture, with a background of trees.
Rustin and his life partner, Walter Naegle

In 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California for engaging in sexual activity with another man in a parked car. He was originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, but pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of “sex perversion” and served 60 days in jail. This was the first time his sexuality had come to public attention. He was forced to resign from his position within the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) because of these charges.

It was not until the 1980s that he engaged in gay rights activism. In 1986, he gave a speech about the social change that the LGBT community was facing. He referenced similarities between the civil rights movement and the LGBT rights movement, stating “It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change… The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”


In 2012, Rustin was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBTQIA+ history and people. He was posthumously awarded membership into the Delta Phi Upsilon fraternity, which is for gay, bisexual and progressive men. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Walter Naegle accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of his late partner, Bayard Rustin
Naegle accepts Medal of Freedom for Rustin

Rustin’s research, activism, and persistence helped create big social change throughout history in both the civil rights movement and the LGBT rights movement. He was able to push for legislation that had a large impact on the lives of black citizens in the United States. Although the work for equal rights is not done, without the advocacy and work of Bayard Rustin behind the scenes, important acts in legislation would not have been passed.

Written By: Zach Hover