'Equal' docuseries on HBO: Who was Bayard Rustin? Civil rights leader was relegated to MLK's shadow for being gay

Rustin was attacked as a 'pervert' or 'immoral influence' by political opponents from segregationists to Black power militants


                            'Equal' docuseries on HBO:  Who was Bayard Rustin? Civil rights leader was relegated to MLK's shadow for being gay
Bayard Rustin (Getty Images)
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HBO Max's latest docuseries tells the stories of forgotten people and events of the LGBTQ+ history. As far as television programs go, 'Equal' is one of the more comprehensive accounts of the movement's history, covering not just the famous Stonewall Riots, but also the movements that preceded it as well as the people who came before America started to see a revolution for the community.

One of the people we meet is Bayard Rustin, played by Keiynan Lonsdale in the third episode. Rustin was a civil rights leader who marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King Jr but was pushed to the sidelines because Rustin was proudly gay, an identity he never tried to hide. Rustin is not often talked about when we speak of the civil rights movement -- and there is a reason for that as the second episode of 'Equal' goes on to explain.

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In his efforts for the civil rights movement, Rustin worked on the March on Washington Movement in 1941 to press for an end to racial discrimination in employment and organized Freedom Rides Rustin served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. Rustin also influenced young activists, such as Tom Kahn and Stokely Carmichael, in organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

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As part of his deepening commitment to nonviolent protest, Rustin traveled to India in 1948 to attend a world pacifist conference. Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year, but his teachings touched Rustin in profound ways. “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,” he wrote after returning to the United States. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn”.

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Rustin was never afraid to be who he truly was. In January 1953, Rustin, after delivering a speech in Pasadena, California, was arrested on “lewd conduct” and “vagrancy” charges, allegedly for a sexual act involving two white men in an automobile. Fellow civil rights activists criticized his sexuality and his public criminal charge as they felt it affected the purpose of the civil rights movement. Rustin was attacked as a “pervert” or “immoral influence” by political opponents from segregationists to Black power militants. As mentioned in the documentary, even Dr King turned his back on Rustin and the latter was banished from the civil rights movement for a time after another Black leader, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, threatened Dr King to drop Rustin.

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Despite tensions with other Black activists, Rustin remained engaged in the fight for equality and had played a big role in shaping the civil rights movement. When Dr King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, Rustin participated in the memorial march and demanded economic justice for sanitation workers. On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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'Equal' is available to stream on HBO Max from October 22.