Civil rights leaders faced red-baiting, gay-baiting
Lavender & red, part 54
Published Feb 24, 2006 8:24 PM
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans
activists—Black and white—played an important role in the ranks and
the leadership of the civil rights movement. However, the illegality of same-sex
love and the “Lavender Menace” Cold War campaign made their
sexuality a target for state repression.
Bayard Rustin, organizer of the
1963 March on Washington, may be the best-known gay Black civil rights leader.
Rustin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black leaders were the focus of
intense surveillance and counter-intelligence—COINTELPRO—tactics of
the FBI and other political police agencies.
Rustin was arrested in 1953
in a car with two white men in Pasadena, convicted and jailed for “sex
perversion.” Author George Chauncey Jr. later asked Rustin if he believed
the charges were politically motivated. Rustin answered, “I think so.
Because way back as far as 1946, ‘47, I had organized all over the
country, even in the Deep South, and I was in California at the time of the
arrest, leading demonstrations against discrimination in theaters, hotels and
restaurants.” (“Time on Two Crosses”)
ideological pacifist, organized in the South with Dr. King. In 1960, labor
leader A. Phillip Randolph had asked Rustin to work on civil rights
demonstrations that targeted the national conventions of both the Republican and
the Demo cratic parties. Rustin invited Dr. King to a news conference announcing
the marches. King then left for Brazil.
Great pressure was brought to bear
on Rustin. It focused on his sexuality, which was criminalized by the state.
Rustin recalled, “Later [Dr. King] called me from Brazil very, very
agitated indeed, and said that on second thought maybe we ought not to proceed
with the marches.”
Rustin got back in touch with King to say that
Randolph and others were going full-steam ahead on the demonstrations. “I
called Martin back and told him this, whereupon he told me the whole story. A
woman who was well known in the movement had called him and said that [New York
Congress member Adam Clayton] Powell was going to call a press conference and
implicate me and Dr. King in some sort of liaison if Dr. King did not call off
the marches. Now, obviously this is a case where Powell had been promised
something by the Democratic Party if he’d get rid of
Rustin added in another interview, “There, of course, was
no homosexual relation ship with Dr. King. But Martin was so uneasy about it
that I decided I did not want Dr. King to have to dismiss me. I had come to the
SCLC [South ern Christian Leader ship Coun cil] to help. If I was going to be a
burden I would leave—and I did. How ever, Dr. King was never happy about
my leaving. He was deeply torn—although I had left the SCLC, he frequently
called me in and asked me to help. While in 1960 he felt real pressure to fire
me, in 1963 he agreed that I should organize the March on Washington, of which
he was one of the leaders.” (1987 interview with the magazine Open
In 1963, Rustin was to be named director of the 1963 March on
Washington. Roy Wilkins, then executive director of the NAACP, told Rustin he
would object. “He made it quite clear that he had absolutely no prejudice
toward me or toward homosexuality,” Rustin said. Wilkins told Rustin that
he was concerned that the enemies of civil rights would exploit the fact that
the director of the March on Washing ton was gay. Wilkins added that although
Rustin was not a communist, he was known to be a socialist and a “draft
Rustin replied, “Roy, I just disagree with that, and
I think that the time has come when we have to stand up and stop running from
things. And I don’t believe that if this is raised by the Southern Demo
crats, that it will do anything but spur people on. We can issue a statement
which says they will use anything to try and stop us in our march to freedom,
but no matter what they use we will win.”
Unswayed, Wilkins called a
meeting of the Black march leaders. Randolph named him self director, as a
compromise. But his first act, he said, would be to appoint Rustin as his
deputy. King and CORE Director Jim Farmer voted for Rustin. Wilkins reportedly
said, “Phil, you’ve got me over a barrel, I’ll go along with
In June 1963, on Capitol Hill, Sen. Strom Thurmond did attack
the March on Washington, denouncing Rustin as a “sexual pervert.”
Although Rustin had politically distanced himself from his early activist work
with the Young Communist League, it did not spare him Thurmond’s
red-baiting. Thurmond also condemned Rustin for having refusing military
induction as a conscientious objector.
Randolph met with the march
leadership and quickly pulled together a statement by Black leaders of the civil
rights movement and labor unions, as well as progressive religious figures, all
of whom were organizing the march. The statement concluded that Rustin
“will continue to organize the March with our full and undivided
Gays and lesbians—Black and white—played a
significant role in other civil rights battles, in the Deep South as well.
There, in particular, the state honed sharp the weapon of anti-gay
Next: Local and regional Black and white leaders in Southern
civil rights movement face ferocious gay-baiting, red-baiting.
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