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Bayard Rustin - The Civil Rights Movement's Lost Prophet

Shevry Lassiter | , WI Staff Writer | 2/9/2012, 12:45 p.m.

"We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers

An unseemly warm February evening brought out a pleasant crowd gathered to honor a man often called the unsung prophet of the civil rights movement - Bayard Rustin - who was one of the strategic visionaries and primary organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.

Not many accolades have been given to Rustin who died at age 75 in 1987. He is described by filmmaker Bennett Singer as "fun-loving, mischievous, artistic, gifted with a fine singing voice, and known as an art collector who sometimes found museum-quality pieces in New York City trash."

Historian John D'Emilio calls Rustin the "lost prophet" of the Civil Rights movement.

Some would argue that the movement and much of what it achieved would look a lot different without Rustin's involvement.

His legacy and how Rustin influenced the civil rights movement was pondered by admirers invited by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Split this Rock who co-sponsored an art-centered celebration recently of the centennial of Rustin's birth at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Northwest.

A quote that perhaps best epitomizes the Civil Rights giant is, "We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers." Bayard definitely fell into that category. He was on the vanguard of the human struggle to force the United States to live up to its creed of justice and equality for all.

He was an instrument of change - often working in the background - who sought to secure civil, economic and human rights for Black people and all Americans. As an adherent of Mahatma Gandhi, he worked to bring about this change peacefully.

Rustin was an eloquent, tireless voice for the poor, downtrodden, the ignored and dispossessed. He was fearless, standing tall in a time in a society fanned by the flames of hatred and intolerance.

In the 1950s and '60s, Black America was entrenched in pursuing the right to vote, wanting to be allowed to sit in restaurants, drink from public water fountains, and to receive equal pay for jobs, to secure decent jobs and housing, and to just be treated as human beings.

Ruston was a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but even as he focused on ways to gain greater equality for Black people, he experienced discrimination and was dealing with the discomfort of Black leaders who objected to his sexual orientation they perceived as a hindrance to the Civil Rights movement.

He was arrested, beaten, threatened, imprisoned and fired from leadership positions because he was openly gay. When the FBI photographed Rustin and Dr. King having a conversation while King was bathing, he was warned by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that if he didn't quit the movement, people would be informed that he and King had a homosexual relationship. Thinking it in the best interest of the movement, Rustin stepped back.

In one account it was said that Bayard decided to step back because he did not want his sexuality to have an undue influence on the movement. In another version we hear that Black clergy did not want Rustin at the forefront of the movement because he was openly gay.