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In Found Audio, a Forgotten Civil Rights Leader Says Coming Out Was an Absolute Necessity

Though Bayard Rustin, close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., was gay, his legacy is not well known in the queer community.
He was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington.

Still, Bayard Rustin's legacy as a leading figure in the civil rights movement is little known today, even among many history buffs and within the LGBTQ community. His homosexuality cost him that visibility and was considered by some as a hindrance to the movement's success.

Rustin died in 1987, but his silenced voice was recently resurrected in previously unaired audio from an interview with the Washington Blade in the mid-1980s. The audio will air this week in an episode of the podcast Making Gay History. It was discovered by Sara Burningham, the podcast's executive producer.

Rustin was the target of homophobic attacks, and as he discusses in the interview, he was sidelined by other black leaders at key moments during a movement he helped steer.

"At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him," Rustin says to the Blade in the interview.

He conceded, but as Eric Marcus, the host of Making Gay History, tells NPR's Michel Martin, Rustin kept working for the cause. In the face of constant setbacks and discrimination, Marcus says, Rustin's commitment prevailed, a quality Marcus attributes to his Quaker upbringing.

The rare tape was provided by Rustin's surviving partner, Walter Naegle, who preserved a library of backup recordings. Those recordings have helped foster a better understanding of the gay icon — one that Marcus concedes was absent from his civil rights education.

"I feel like I was robbed of my history as a gay person," Marcus says. "Growing up, if I'd known known about someone like him, it would've been transformative."

Marcus finds it inspiring that Rustin was open about his sexuality at a time when being gay was still considered dangerous. His arrest record included protesting and charges related to his homosexuality.
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