From The Grio — President Obama’s announcement that he supports gay marriage has provoked a spirited debate about whether or not African-Americans will continue to support him this November. Some black clergy have openly denounced President Obama’s position. Maryland State Delegate and Baptist minister Emmett Burns has publicly gone on record declaring that Obama will lose his re-election bid, even accusing the president of turning his back on his black constituency.
On the other hand, Rev. Otis Moss, III, of Trinity Baptist Church in Chicago, the Obamas’ former church once headed by the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, wrote in an open letter in support of the president, saying, “There is no doubt people who are same-gender-loving who [sic] occupy prominent places in the body of Christ.”
In the midst of this contentious debate within the black community some have either ignored or forgotten the role some openly gay Americans played in fighting for the civil rights of all Americans regardless of race or sexual orientation. Most notable among them is Bayard Rustin.
A principal organizer of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Bayard Rustin, who had worked with the original March in 1941, was a constant and steady force during the influential civil rights activities of the early 20th century. He was also openly gay. Yet neither Martin Luther King, Jr. nor A. Philip Randolph, with whom he worked intimately, voiced any known concern about his sexuality.
It is even been reported that until Rustin reached out to Dr. King in the early stages of the pivotal Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King was not completely committed to nonviolent direct action. Armed men guarded his home and he, himself, reportedly owned a handgun. A veteran civil rights and human activist as well as pacifist, Rustin schooled Dr. King in the tactics of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, having studied it himself with those who worked closely with Gandhi in 1948 at a conference in India organized prior to Gandhi’s assassination.
Prior to Rustin’s important role as a key adviser to Dr. King, he had worked extremely closely with A. Philip Randolph, who is credited with introducing him to Gandhi’s philosophy and its usefulness in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Rustin was also a pivotal figure in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the well-known peace organization, and helped guide the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In fact, he was a key organizer for the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, which inspired the more well-known Freedom Rides of the 1960s.
Rustin, who walked the walk, took part in those rides, personally challenging segregated bus transportation. Prior to that formal action, Rustin had refused to sit in segregated bus seating in 1942 and accepted a severe beating in Nashville by four cops. His refusal to resist was so extraordinary that the assistant district attorney released him uncharged.