In the shadows of the King

Bayard met 25-year old Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956 to help strategize the Montgomery bus boycott.

At the time, 44-year old Bayard was a seasoned activist who had survived a mountain of adversity dished out by both whites and blacks, including being silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions. In the process, he had amassed an impressive reputation as a master strategist.

It was Bayard who first introduced Dr. King and the other Montgomery bus boycott leaders to the Gandhian methods of non-violent protesting. Dr. King had not yet personally embraced nonviolence as a method for fighting injustice. In fact, he kept a gun in his house, along with armed guards at his doors.

Seven years prior, Bayard had travelled on his own to Delhi to learn the art of non-violent protesting directly from Gandhi. His methods eventually resulted in A) Montgomery City officials de-segregating the buses after a 381-day standoff, and B) helping the Civil Rights Movement draw national attention.

Out of the hundreds of protests Bayard initiated during the tumultuous Civil Rights years, his most notable achievement was conceiving and co-organizing one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States--the 1963 March on Washington--where Dr. King delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech before a crowd of 250,000 marchers.

You've probably never read about Bayard in the history books, as his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was either marginalized, concealed or obscured. The reason was because Bayard Rustin was not just a Black activist. He was the movement's first an openly gay strategist, in a fiercely homophobic era.

Historians refer to him as the "lost prophet" of the Civil Rights Movement, and a key figure in helping to mold Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into the international symbol of peace and nonviolence that he is today.

Bayard continued to fight for human rights until his death in 1987. And in 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, which is the highest civilian award of the United States.

Light Watkins