All month long, Outsports is revisiting key moments in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer sports history as part of LGBTQ history month. Today, as the nation mourns the death of the legendary Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, we look at the legacy of Bayard Rustin. a civil rights pioneer and out gay man who organized the famous 1963 march on Washington. That was the event at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.
Although Rustin advised King as a strategist, he existed mostly in the shadows, given his orientation and his former association with the American Communist Party. As Patricia Nell Warren wrote in Outsports in February 2009, in a story edited by co-founder Jim Buzinski, Rustin found his inspiration to rise up as a student athlete in high school.
Rustin started his activist career way back around 1929, when he first played high-school football. This chapter in his life is a “Remember the Titans” kind of story.
The word “activist” rolls off our tongues easily today. But in 1920s and 1930s America, taking a stand on human-rights issues automatically made you a target for the FBI. You were pegged as a communist or a socialist agitator — terms that were used as deadly weapons against anybody who tried to challenge the status quo, whether it was race relations or unionizing or veterans’ rights.
Bayard’s close-knit family was rooted in eastern Pennsylvania, in the small town of West Chester. When his mother was 17, she got pregnant out of wedlock. Bayard was born in 1912. Since his father never stepped forward to accept responsibility, Florence’s parents, Julia and Janifer Rustin, adopted the boy as their own.
Slender, intense Julia was well-educated — one of the first blacks in the county to finish high school. She worked for a prominent Quaker family and made herself visible in community service. When the NAACP was founded in 1910, Julia was a charter member. Though she belonged to the local African Methodist church, Julia was part Delaware Indian. Her family were Quakers and free people of color who had lived in Pennsylvania for generations.
From his grandmother, Bye — as he was called at home — soaked up that powerful example of community activism, as well as a keen consciousness of America’s dissenter heritage. In the mid-1600s, the pacifist Friends (as Quakers called themselves) had begun streaming to the North American colonies to escape persecution in Anglican-ruled England. After the American Revolution, Quaker leaders influenced our founders’ decision to adopt the First Amendment principle of freedom of conscience. Outraged at slavery, the Friends helped organize the “underground railroad” that enabled thousands of escaped slaves to get out of the South and establish themselves in freedom. That old escape route had run right through Bayard’s home town.
Ironically, in spite of all this history, segregation had seeped into Pennsylvania from the South. So West Chester was a city where many businesses and institutions enforced Jim Crow. As the only high school in the county, West Chester Senior High School was uneasily integrated, with a small number of blacks among its 600 students.
A Renaissance Athlete
Rustin was one of those rare students who did well at everything. He was a good-looking 6-footer, popular with both black and white students — straight-A student, mainstay of the debating team, award-winning essayist, and outstanding singer (tenor). He even wrote poetry. In short, according to biographer John D’Emilio, he was “West Chester’s version of a Renaissance man.”
”Most important, Pinhead – as he was nicknamed by friends – was the best athlete in the school. At first it was just tennis, track and basketball where he beat everybody. But tennis was viewed as a pansy sport, and Bayard was already aware of his attraction to other males and worried about his masculinity. So he went out for football to prove his own manliness to himself.
With his speed and smarts, a movie script might have made him star quarterback of the West Chester Warriors. Instead Bayard chose to play offensive lineman, left tackle. In basic football strategy, all five linemen have the job of protecting the quarterback. But the two tackles have an extra-tough job, because they have to anchor the two ends of that offensive line, blocking multiple hits from opposing players and preventing them from making a blitz.
Bayard’s sheer will to use his strength and psychic force for the team’s benefit made him the Warriors’ MVP. Later a teammate remembered what it was like to run up against Pinhead in a scrimmage. He said, “I found it impossible to get by him. Sometimes, after knocking me down on my face, he would gently help me to my feet and quote a line from a poem.”
Another teammate added in, “He was the toughest hitter on the front line. I wouldn’t have expected that of a young man whose grandmother was raising him to be nonviolent. Yet I could never hit as hard as he did.”
By his junior year, that toughness had made Bayard an all-county lineman, and won him letters in both football and track. During his senior year, 1932-33, he helped carry the track team to the state mile championship at the Penn Relays. That same year, the West Chester Warriors had a 10-game winning streak, with the local paper enthusing, “Bayard Rustin played his usual fine game at left tackle, working splendidly with left end Bruno.”
An Activist Is Born
On that extraordinary team, some strong black-white friendships were born. But off campus, the boys ran into Jim Crow. All the team members were welcome at Julia’s house. But one of Bayard’s best friends was a white boy whose parents wouldn’t let their son invite Bayard to their home. The black team members weren’t allowed in the YMCA or certain restaurants. They had to sit in the segregated balcony at the movie theater. For games out of town, the black players couldn’t stay at the same hotel as their white teammates. Some schools even refused to let their all-white teams play West Chester.
The moment came when Bayard had enough. One weekend, just before the Warriors were to play in a neighboring town, he organized his black teammates into a protest squad. They told the coach that, if they couldn’t have the same accommodations as their white teammates, they weren’t going to play. The coach buckled – though he later retaliated by holding back some track awards that the boys had earned.
After that, there was no stopping Rustin. He led his special team of protesters all over West Chester — into stores, restaurants, the YMCA. The boys were usually thrown out, but they kept trying. One of his followers remembered later, “Bayard’s determination was frightening. But we looked up to him as our leader. He was persuasive. He could sell you anything.”
Eventually Bayard was arrested for the first time in his life, for trying to sit in the white section of the movie theater.
In 1932, when Bayard graduated as class valedictorian, nobody would have predicted that he’d become a valued player in global civil-rights activism. They figured he’d be a singer, or a pro athlete… even a poet. But no local organizations made scholarships available for a talented black kid. So his grandmother Julia wangled him an out-of-town scholarship that sent him to Wilberforce in Ohio — one of the oldest black colleges in the U.S.
By then, Bayard had already had his first sexual experiences with other boys, and knew that he was gay. “I never felt any guilt,” he said later. Indeed, he took the offensive in cruising for one-time experiences. But this was something that had to be kept hidden at all costs.
Read the rest of Patricia Nell Warren’s account by clicking here.
Tomorrow — and every day in October — we’ll look back at another moment in LGBTQ sports history.