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Rustin Was One of America's Social Pioneers on Two Fronts

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This past week marked the centennial of the birth of Bayard Rustin.

For those who are unaware of Rustin's significant contributions to American democracy in the 20th century, he was one of the behind-the-scene pillars of what became known as the civil rights movement.

But when Rustin took his first breath, the dominant culture placed two hidden asterisks by his name -- black and gay.

As Rustin fought to remove the first asterisk, not just for himself, but for all Negroes in America, he was unduly burdened by the second for most of his life.

Rustin was an activist and organizer. Contrary to the contemporary diatribe that many attach to community organizing, it was, and continues to be, the most effective way those on the underside of life can foster substantive change in a democratic society.

In 1947 Rustin helped organize the Freedom Rides through nonviolent civil disobedience to challenge segregation on interstate busing. In 1956, it was Rustin who advised Martin Luther King Jr. on the Gandhian tactics of nonviolence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In 1963, Rustin organized the March on Washington. But his critical involvement in what remains an unprecedented display of human rights in American history did not come without controversy.

Though few within the movement question Rustin's skills as an organizer and strategist, it was the second asterisk attached to his name that caused discomfort, especially within the leadership.

In 1953, Rustin had been arrested in Pasadena for engaging in homosexual sex with two other men in a parked car. This prompted vocal concerns from Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, as well as famed Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

But Rustin had two key allies, A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the march, and King.

From the U.S. Senate floor, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond called Rustin a draft dodger, a "Communist," a homosexual, and had his entire arrest file entered into the Congressional Record.

But Rustin survived the attacks, planning a march for an estimated 250,000 with acute attention to detail. But the success of the march in 1963 that fueled the momentum for landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and '65 did nothing to remove the second asterisk of his being an openly gay man.

Rustin's resolute spirit to live his life on his own terms came at a cost.

I suspect part of that cost has reduced his name to a footnote in the annals of civil rights antiquity.

Things have changed greatly in America since Rustin boldly lived his life as an openly gay man, a decision that invariably meant professional suicide. But those conditions have not changed to the point that Rustin's homosexuality is no longer a deterrent from reaping the full benefits guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

It is an asterisk that too many of our brothers and sisters continue to wear, not because of an inferiority on their part, but rather a tragic cowardliness exhibited by the dominant culture.

It is a faulty terrain that we stand whenever we believe we have unearthed the exception to the rule as to why a group of Americans should live outside the values of the Constitution.

The failure to include the gay and lesbian community as a full partner in the American experiment incarcerates us all.

Last week, I was honored to receive a proclamation from the Berkeley City Council commemorating Rustin's birth. I commend Council member Darryl Moore for not allowing us to forget Rustin's invaluable contributions and the price he paid personally.

We all stand on his shoulders for his invaluable efforts to move us closer to that utopian goal of "a more perfect union."