Civil rights leader Rustin left in closet of history

Tuesday marked the fourth of five events orchestrated by the United Black Students (UBS) organization for this year’s two-week Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration.

The event focused not on Dr. King, but rather the lesser known civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

“You hear the same thing every year, you hear the ‘I have a dream’ speech, and you hear the same facts out of the same box every year,” said Arielle Clay, the co-chair of the MLK Celebration 2007. “I felt it would be good to highlight Bayard Rustin to go outside that same box.”

Tuesday’s event began with a screening of the documentary “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.” The documentary not only revealed all of the actions that Rustin helped initiate during the black civil rights movement, but also exposed why so little is heard of him in black history-he was not only African-American in a time of segregation, but also a homosexual.

The following is detailed in the film:

Rustin’s homosexuality created constant obstacles for him and his work. Not only did he have to watch his actions in the public eye to protect his professional integrity, it also tore at him personally because he was not able to express himself fully.

Even Rustin’s own psychiatrist at the time, Dr. Robert Ascher, advised him against coming out to the public, according to the documentary. He told Rustin, “Being homosexual was fine, but society couldn’t handle that right now, your work is deeper than yourself Bayard, so shut up!”

Despite the hardships Rustin faced with his sexual preferences, including a brief separation from Dr. King’s campaign because of a threatened sex scandal rumor between the two activists, Rustin was still a prominent figure in the movement.

Helping with the integration of the bus systems in the South in the mid-1950s, Rustin also organized the famous “March on Washington” where more than 200,000 participants ended up in front of the Lincoln Memorial demanding equality.

Even after social progress with respect to gay rights, Rustin’s sexuality has kept him from being a common name in household discussions and in the textbooks in public schools.

C.J. Williams, a sophomore and member of UBS, spoke on this omission from history.

“[L]ove and hate should be taught at home as well as in school,” Williams said. “Rustin should be used to teach this, regardless of his sexual orientation.”

This week was the 40th anniversary of University of Miami’s UBS chapter, making it one of the oldest black unions in the country. Several prominent civil rights activists have visited the university, including Dr. King twice before his death, according to UBS’ recording secretary Shajena Erazo.

Harold Long, the first president of UBS at UM, will attend the final event of the MLK Celebration on Feb. 1 to discuss the past two weeks, what he has seen over the years as far as advancement and what more must be done.

Clay, the MLK celebration co-chair, said she recognizes the “celebration” as a time to reflect and appreciate what those who fought for equality all these years have done for African-Americans in today’s world, but she went on to say that she felt that there is still room for improvement.

“We don’t necessarily need one particular person to stand up,” she said, “but I feel that the African-American community has grown stagnant and that the community is not moving as far forward as we would like it to be.”

Alex Gelep may be contacted at