Four on Four: Jacob Reitan on Bayard Rustin

11.5.2006

By Out.com Editors

We asked four of this year's 2006 Out 100 honorees to tell us which late, great member of the LGBT community influenced their lives the most.

Bayard Rustin was the quiet giant behind the civil rights movement. Before Brown vs. Board of Education, before the Montgomery bus boycott, and before the march from Selma to Birmingham, Rustin's work for racial equality helped give the movement energy, philosophy, and structure. In 1942, Rustin helped cofound the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and in 1947 he led the very first Freedom Ride through the south, which he called the 'Journey Toward Reconciliation.' A pacifist and a follower of Gandhi, Rustin was an early advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the power of nonviolence and the nature of social change.

Because Rustin was gay there was a great debate among other civil rights leaders over the role he should play in the movement for racial justice. Many saw his sexual orientation and his ties to the communist party as a hindrance and advocated Rustin be relegated to the background, and the forces of fear prevented Rustin from becoming a poster person for the struggle. Despite this lack of visibility, he continued to be a driving force for justice and equality. Many consider his greatest achievement to be his work in planning the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech.

Rustin is an inspiring spirit for me as I work and dream about creating a larger, more public, and more forceful movement for gay and lesbian equality. Rustin's life is a testament to the effort and commitment needed to effect change. The price of justice was never too high for Rustin. He went to jail, faced violence, and put his life on the line in order that we might live in a more equal and just society. His accomplishments inspire courage and commitment, beckoning each of us to do more on our common journey to make society fair for all.

As a gay activist, I draw strength from the example he set. Long before I did the Equality Ride or got involved in Soulforce, indeed even before I came out as gay, I felt a pull from deep within me to work to end the injustice suffered by gay and lesbian people. I believe Rustin felt that same pull. It is a pull toward truth and fairness. I believe it is a pull in all of us. The only question before us is Do we heed its calling? Rustin's life shows us the potential of what can happen when we do.

Reitan created the Soulforce Equality Ride, which this year took 33 activists (most of whom are LGB or T) on a 7-week tour across the country to 19 religious and military schools that discriminate against gay people. The 24-year-old Minnesotan also serves as the young adult codirector of Soulforce (founded by Rev. Mel White), which pursues freedom for gays and lesbians from political and religious persecution.

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