WASHINGTON — Months before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” declaration galvanized a quarter-million people at the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin was planning all the essential details to keep the crowd orderly and engaged.
Rustin, who died in 1987, is sometimes forgotten in civil rights history. As a Quaker and pacifist, he was often an outcast. Perhaps most notably, he was gay in an era when same-sex relations were widely reviled in American society. He served as chief strategist for King’s march, over the objections of some leaders — but he was kept mostly in the background, with some organizers considering him a liability.
At the commemorations for King’s march 50 years later, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people will be included like never before in a sign of the civil rights movement’s broad evolution. Rustin also will be honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
“In ’63, we didn’t talk about gays,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was joined by gay and lesbian activists in announcing plans for the gatherings scheduled Aug. 24-28 in Washington. “Bayard Rustin had to take a back seat. Gay and lesbian leadership stands with us and will be speaking this time.”
Groups plan to bus in gay and lesbian participants from Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, North Carolina and beyond. The planning groups include the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Black Justice Coalition and the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, as well as labor and teachers unions.
The Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, who directs faith partnerships and mobilizing at the Human Rights Campaign, said the inclusion of gay rights in the larger civil rights movement has been transformative.
“We see human rights and civil rights as linked. And so our commitment is to stand with others on issues of justice and, really, on issues of equality,” he said. “LGBT equality, in our minds, is consistent with many other justice issues, so it’s important that we’re present.”
Gay rights advocates credit Sharpton and leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with overcoming divisions among African-American groups, some of which remain socially conservative. Gay issues can be divisive, especially in black churches. King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, has spoken out in the past against gay marriage, while her late mother, Coretta Scott King, was an ardent gay rights supporter.
The pace of change in views among civil rights leaders has been surprising, said Taylor Branch, a historian who has written extensively on the civil rights movement. It reflects the broad impact of the 1960s call for equal citizenship, which led to movements for the rights of women, the environment, disabled people and eventually for gays.
“Once people really started confronting their fears and what does equal citizenship mean and why aren’t we fairer to this group or that group, it sparked all kinds of questions like that,” Branch said.
The inclusion of gay rights marks an evolution in how Americans think about civil rights as rights pertaining to citizenship, Branch said.
“It’s a step in maturity beyond trying to say this is just about us and race relations,” Branch said. “I think acknowledging the larger impact doesn’t diminish the movement. It actually shows how important it was in opening other doors then and maybe still now.”
Civil rights veteran Julian Bond, who helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, said there has been a “shift in consciousness” among African-Americans. For 11 years as NAACP chairman, Bond said he never pushed the organization to take a stand on gay marriage because he feared he would lose if the issue was put to a vote. Then in May 2012, shortly after Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, the organization’s board voted to support gay marriage rights.
“Civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law,” the group announced, citing the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
In a written statement to The Associated Press, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous said a broader coalition is needed to fight the civil rights battles of the 21st century.
“Last century we needed lawyers; this century we need big, broad coalitions,” he said. “When extremists decide to attack all our communities, they must hope that there will be infighting. But we have stood all for one and one for all. That is how we will win.”
For LGBT people, the fight is not yet over for the values of equality King stood for, said Darlene Nipper of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Most states ban gay marriage and other civil rights for gay couples.
As a black woman and lesbian, Nipper said she will be able to bring her whole self to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, now that the gay rights movement is not a separate cause pushed to the side.
“It’s just a powerful, palpable, beautiful progression toward the kind of society that Martin Luther King Jr. talked about when he was talking about that truly beloved community,” she said. “That’s really reflective of inclusion for all of us.”
While Rustin was kept out of public view 50 years ago at the march, Flournoy and other gay rights advocates said they plan to speak at this year’s gatherings. There will also be special events at Washington’s Lincoln Theatre and at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters to honor Rustin’s memory. And Rustin will be honored later this year at the White House.
“It’s going to be a watershed moment,” said Sharon Lettman-Hicks of the National Black Justice Coalition, which is dedicated to LGBT people of color. “But the work is not done.”