Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington and one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and ’60’s — largely whitewashed from history because he was openly gay — will be celebrated at a free event on Friday evening at Little Rock’s Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, “Champions of Justice: Celebrating the Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.” Speakers at the event include Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine, who knew and worked with Rustin, and Mandy Carter, co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition. ACLU-Arkansas staff attorney Holly Dickson will also receive an award at the event for her efforts to promote justice and civil rights in Arkansas. You can check out the event’s Facebook page here.
The event will begin on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at 501 W. Ninth street. Admission is free, and cocktail attire is preferred. There will be a reception with refreshments and drinks, followed by the speakers. More info about Rustin’s fascinating life and the event on the jump…
The event is presented by Little Rock’s Center for Artistic Revolution, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, The Clinton Birthplace National Historic Site in Hope, and Philander Smith College. Sponsors include the National Black Justice Coalition’s Bayard Rustin Commemoration Project, Just Communities of Arkansas, and Jay Barth and Chuck Cliett, among others.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1912 and raised by his Quaker grandparents, Rustin was a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, eventually serving two years in prison for refusing to register for the draft. After his release, he worked for the full desegregation of the armed forces. In 1956, Rustin traveled to Montgomery, Ala. to advise Martin Luther King, Jr. in non-violent protest during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and later helped plan and participated in the first of the famous “Freedom Rides” that took busloads of civil rights activists through the still-segregated South. In 1962, Rustin famously debated Malcolm X about the need for cooperation with whites to achieve civil rights for African-Americans. In 1963, Rustin served as the deputy organizer of the March on Washington, reading the “10 Demands” of the march from the podium, and became one of the few openly-gay public figures in America when his participation in the March earned him a tirade in the well of the Senate by Sen. Strom Thurmond, who attacked Rustin for his homosexuality and a California public indecency arrest in 1953. Following New York City’s Stonewall Riots in 1969, Rustin would pick up the cause of gay rights. He died of a burst appendix in August 1987. A 2002 documentary, “Brother Outsider,” was produced about his life, and in August of this year, the White House announced that president Obama would award Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in furthering the cause of civil justice.
Randi Romo, with event sponsor The Center for Artistic Revolution, said that Rustin is an important figure in both the history of African-American civil rights and the LGBT rights movement. “He was a critically important part of the civil rights movement and was pretty much disappeared from it because of his sexual orientation,” Romo said. “He has this amazing legacy that has helped to move almost all of us forward, and almost nobody knows who he is.”