In a society based on social identity, people often conform to the acceptable and thus, they hide their identity. During the civil rights movement, Roy Wilkins did not want Bayard Rustin to participate actively because he was actively gay, which was taboo at the time. The civil rights leaders were mostly involved in the church, thus being gay, which went contrary to the religious doctrine held at the time, was considered taboo. It is especially a taboo when it deals with sexual matters revolving around orientation.
John D’Emilio is a renowned scholar, activist, and professor who is considered a pioneer author who championed for the rights of gay and lesbian citizens of the world. He has authored over a dozen books on the topic of sexuality and gay rights.
Rustin thought that the role of the march was to create awareness on the civil rights violations and that violence would have shifted the focus of the agenda. As a democratic person, Rustin felt that the issues at hand would have benefited from a large turn out than on violent protests. Since the agenda was a civilized end to discrimination and the Jim Crow Laws, then nonviolent protests would have been the most ideal approach to solving the problem.
At the time of holding the match, Rustin, who was openly gay had been jailed twice; first in 1944 after he refused to fight in World War II. Secondly, in Pasadena 9 years later after being caught having sex with two other men, pleading guilty to a lesser ‘morals charge,’ where he was imprisoned for sixty days. Therefore, Roy Wilkins believed as a draft dodger, a promiscuous gay, and his former communist connections will prove too costly to the movement. Further, Wilkins felt he will have to spend his time defending Rustin which he did not want to do. However, his mentor, A Philip Randolph, and the man who hatched the march defended him against Wilkin’s accusations because of his organization skills and attention to details.
His organization skills and attention to details were evident when he opposed militancy approach propagated by some of his colleagues and instead decided to organize with a high number of participants drawn not only from the black community but the whites as well. This approach, he reasoned would show the world a united Black community supported by whites, the church among others who would not have preferred the militancy approach. In hindsight, his view was the best of all inclusive options which gave the movement the legitimacy it needed to get the necessary attention.
Further, John D’Emilio (2003), author of the book Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, has done extensive research on Rustin’s life. His study was instrumental in explaining what motivated Rustin and his thoughts on the prejudice he faced at that time within, which in reality, the mid-century America did not want to admit or believe existed. So that when Strom Thurmond entered the photo of Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Congressional Record with the hope of insinuating that the two were involved in a sexual relationship, Eleanor Holmes commended Wilkins for standing up for Rustin.
As a result of contributions to the success of the match, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was meant to recognize his work. Rustin was a brilliant organizer sidelined from the limelight because he was not “sexually correct.” In a way, this award falls within Alice Walker’s concept of “collecting,” as Rustin has been recognized for a genius he was and the recognition will live beyond this current generation.
Most importantly it is necessary to understand that different job descriptions demand a different set of skills so that when the right person fit perfectly with the job at hand, there is a need to avoid prejudices which have no effect on his level of output. It was established that Rustin was the best person for the job because, despite all odds against him, he still managed to triumph. If he had been denied the opportunity ti be part of the march his efforts in the civil rights movements would have been forthcoming. As John D’Emilio says, he was indeed a prophet lost in the moral confusion that characterized mid-century America’s reasoning.
d’Emilio, John. Lost Prophet: The life and times of Bayard Rustin. Simon and Schuster, 2003.
Younge, Gary. Bayard Rustin: The Gay Black Pacifist at the Heart of the March on Washington. The Guardian August 23, 2013.