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The Man Black History Erased

By LZ Granderson CNN Contributor | 8/21/2013, 6:59 p.m.
Bayard Rustin is the most important leader of the civil rights movement you probably have never heard of.

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LZ Granderson, CNN

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute Fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is also a senior writer for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

On August 13, 1963, in a last ditch effort to derail the pending March on Washington, Strom Thurmond took the Senate floor and hurled a series of vicious, personal attacks against the man organizing the largest protest in U.S. history.

Thurmond called him a Communist and a draft dodger.

He brought up a previous arrest and accused him of being immoral and a pervert.

The man Thurmond was attacking was not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In fact Thurmond used King's own words -- secretly recorded by J.Edgar Hoover -- in his attacks against the march's deputy director.

"I hope Bayard don't take a drink before the march," Clarence Jones, King's lawyer and close friend, said in the recording.

"Yes," King replied. "And grab one little brother. 'Cause he will grab one when he has a drink."

"Bayard" would be Bayard Rustin, the most important leader of the civil rights movement you probably have never heard of.

Rustin was imprisoned for challenging racial segregation in the South before the phrase "Freedom Rider" was ever said. He taught a 25-year-old King the true meaning of nonviolent civil disobedience while the great dreamer was still being flanked by armed bodyguards. And before addressing the crowd of 250,000 that gathered at the National Mall nearly five decades ago, famed actor and activist Ossie Davis introduced him "as the man who organized this whole thing."

No, the reason why you probably have not heard of Bayard Rustin has nothing to do with the significance of his contributions to the March on Washington or the civil rights movement in general. His absence is epitomized by the sentiment woven between the lines of that joke between Jones and Rustin's protege. You see, the organizer of the great march, the man who held a fundraiser at Madison Square Garden to help fund the bus boycott in Montgomery, the intellectual behind the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Council was also unabashedly gay. And it was the discomfort some had with his sexuality that led to his disappearance in our history books.

"We must look back with sadness at the barriers of bigotry built around his sexuality," wrote NAACP chairman emeritus Julian Bond in "I Must Resist," a collection of Rustin letters. "We are the poorer for it."

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of arguably the single most important event of the 20th century -- as well as the speech that defined it -- there is a natural inclination to evaluate how close we are to achieving Dr. King's famed dream.

With President Obama in office, it is silly to suggest no progress has been made. But considering that the wealth gap between black and white families has nearly tripled over the past 25 years or that a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 40% of white Americans don't have a friend outside of their race, who can view the election of one man as King's dream being fulfilled?