Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The man black history erased

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 9:18 PM EDT, Wed August 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bayard Rustin was a civil rights leader and Martin Luther King's mentor
  • LZ Granderson says Rustin's role in March on Washington was largely erased
  • He says Rustin was banished from a prominent role because he was gay
  • Granderson: If we tolerate bigotry of any form, we can't achieve King's dream

Editor's note: CNN will debut "We Were There: The March on Washington -- An Oral History" hosted by Don Lemon Friday at 10 p.m. ET and PT. LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute Fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is also a senior writer for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- On August 13, 1963, in a last ditch effort to derail the pending March on Washington, Strom Thurmond took the Senate floor and hurled a series of vicious, personal attacks against the man organizing the largest protest in U.S. history.

Thurmond called him a Communist and a draft dodger.

He brought up a previous arrest and accused him of being immoral and a pervert.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

The man Thurmond was attacking was not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

In fact Thurmond used King's own words -- secretly recorded by J.Edgar Hoover -- in his attacks against the march's deputy director.

"I hope Bayard don't take a drink before the march," Clarence Jones, King's lawyer and close friend, said in the recording.

"Yes," King replied. "And grab one little brother. 'Cause he will grab one when he has a drink."

The story behind 'I Have A Dream' speech

"Bayard" would be Bayard Rustin, the most important leader of the civil rights movement you probably have never heard of. 

Opinion: Congress, stand up for civil rights

Rustin was imprisoned for challenging racial segregation in the South before the phrase "Freedom Rider" was ever said. He taught a 25-year-old King the true meaning of nonviolent civil disobedience while the great dreamer was still being flanked by armed bodyguards. And before addressing the crowd of 250,000 that gathered at the National Mall nearly five decades ago, famed actor and activist Ossie Davis introduced him "as the man who organized this whole thing."

No, the reason why you probably have not heard of Bayard Rustin has nothing to do with the significance of his contributions to the March on Washington or the civil rights movement in general. His absence is epitomized by the sentiment woven between the lines of that joke between Jones and Rustin's protege. You see, the organizer of the great march, the man who held a fundraiser at Madison Square Garden to help fund the bus boycott in Montgomery, the intellectual behind the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Council was also unabashedly gay. And it was the discomfort some had with his sexuality that led to his disappearance in our history books

"We must look back with sadness at the barriers of bigotry built around his sexuality," wrote NAACP chairman emeritus Julian Bond in "I Must Resist," a collection of Rustin letters. "We are the poorer for it."

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of arguably the single most important event of the 20th century -- as well as the speech that defined it -- there is a natural inclination to evaluate how close we are to achieving Dr. King's famed dream. 

Why some movements work and others wilt

With President Obama in office, it is silly to suggest no progress has been made. But considering that the wealth gap between black and white families has nearly tripled over the past 25 years or that a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 40% of white Americans don't have a friend outside of their race, who can view the election of one man as King's dream being fulfilled?

Yes, the residue of the Jim Crow era still poisons the air like mold spores after a flood, manifesting in unjust laws such as Stop and Frisk and clusters of failing schools in poor black neighborhoods. 

But after recently reading the full text of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech, it occurred to me that perhaps the reason why we're still divided as a nation is because we haven't figured out what is keeping us apart.

Despite being a leading voice for racial equality since the 1940s, Rustin's marginalization is a direct reflection of oppression of a different sort. Thurmond used it as a weapon to attack the March on Washington. Adam Clayton Powell, a black congressman from Harlem, used it to gain power. Other black leaders, like Stokely Carmichael, used it to question his place in the movement. 

March on Washington: Fast Facts

You see as big and as looming and as destructive as racism has been and continues to be in society, we must remember it is only a branch.

The root of the problem, the reason why we continue to struggle with equality, is our pathological intolerance, an intolerance no collective group of people has proven to be immune to.

"I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today, and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

Dr. King's dream has not been fulfilled because we began betraying the integrity of his dream the moment we started scrubbing Rustin's life out of Black History Month lessons and civil rights movies.

We betray that dream each time a black person claims offense to the notion that gay rights are civil rights, as if the black community is the only community capable of being oppressed.

We betray King's dream each time a white elected official is allowed to say things about the gay community in ways that would never be tolerated if directed at the black community.

I don't say these things because I view the history and plight of these two minority groups as being exactly the same -- they are not.    

I say these things because racism and homophobia -- like anti-Semitism, sexism and xenophobia -- all have the same mother. And as long as concessions are made for one, we will never be free from the clutches of the others.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian award. It was established by President Kennedy 50 years ago. Considering the anniversary of the march, it is fitting that Rustin is among the 16 being honored with it in November. 

But like King, he was more than August 28, 1963.  

He was a giant.

And so while the medal is special, the best way to honor him is to talk about him, all of him, both now and in the many years to come. Bayard Rustin spent his life fighting for peace and equality and he did so unashamed of who he was. It's about time history, and the people he helped most, stop being ashamed of him. 

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT