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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”)

Rustin, an 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 me.”

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 Hands)

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 dodger.”

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 you.”

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 support.”

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 bigotry.

Next: Local and regional Black and white leaders in Southern civil rights movement face ferocious gay-baiting, red-baiting.