When the topic of
Human Rights activists are in discussion, usually names such as Martin Luther
King Jr, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are mentioned. Today I would like
to speak about a man who has remained in the background, the ‘invisible man’ of
human rights, Bayard Rustin. Good Afternoon and thank you for inviting me to
speak at the 2017 National Conference of the United Nations Association of
Australia. We join here today to celebrate the 71st anniversary of
the founding of the United Nations and to discuss key identities of Human
Rights. Today I will speak about a man who influenced many during his lifetime,
and bring attention to his remarkable efforts acknowledging Human Rights. *


Born in West
Chester, Pennsylvania, on the 17th of March, 1912,  Rustin’s life was always one of complication.

Until adolescence, he was raised to believe that his parents were Julia and
Janifer Rustin, when these were actually his grandparents. The woman he
believed to be his sister turned out to be his real mother. His father, Achie
Hopkins was a West Indian immigrant.* During his university years, he engrossed
himself in both the African American culture and also in Pennsylvania’s gay
communities. Inspired by the party’s activism on behalf of black Americans and
its initial opposition to U.S involvement in World War II, he also joined the
Youth Communist League , but shortly
lost faith in communism like many others and became an opponent to the notion.

Rustin could have avoided the military draft by seeking conscientious objector
status, but refused to take part in the governments’s alternative service
program. For this act of refusal, Bayard was given more than two years in
federal prison. After release, he landed a job on the field staff of a
Christian pacifist group then later visted India and studied the works of
Gandhi, a famous Indian civil rights activist. *Many influenced Rustin on his
philosphy, but the two most prominent people he honoured were Gandhi and A. Philip
Randolph which lead to his beliefs being a mix of non-violent resistance,
pacifism and socialism, supported by a fight against racial discrimination in
war-related concription. *


Bayard Rustin was
most famous for his efforts linked to Martin Luther King Jr. He was a mentor to
King and taught him about non-violent resistance and tactics of civil
disobedience. He was a key organiser of the March on Washington for jobs and
freedom, where King, delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech to over 250,000
people . (Biography.com ,2015). He
also assisted him in the creation of his own institution: the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference and with the boycott of segregated buses in
Montgomery, Alabama 1965, after chaos rose when Rosa Parks refused to give up
her seat on a public transit bus. Rustin also spoke at the march stating his
seven demands of equality, which included: the access of public accommodations,
decent housing, integrated education, fair employment practices, the right to
vote, no withholding of federal funds. *


Bayard Rustin’s
efforts in Human Rights started in the 1930s after he moved to New York. He got
involved in pacifist groups and early civil rights protests. In 1958, he was a
key coordinator of the march in Aldermaston, England with 10,000 attendees
protesting against nuclear weapons. In
the 1950s he worked alongside MLK Jr as an organiser and strategist. 1965, he
and his mentor Randolph co-founded the A.Philip Randolph institute, labour
organisation for African American trade union members. Everywhere he went he
was invited to speak to the public about his beliefs and strategies. Later on,
his writings about civil rights were published in the collection ‘Down the line 1971.’ He was seen as the
‘perfect’ social activist, liberal scholar Paul Berman writes,”except for the
single disabling quirk of his notoriously promiscuous homosexuality” (American Radio Works,2017). His known sexual orientation caused
strain amongst peers and also caused many to belittle him and his efforts, but
Rustin’s boundless talent as an organiser made him too valuable to the
community to discard. He presented a speech at the Center for Democratic
Institutions, he proposed for the Democratic Party in the United States to be
open to all faiths and colours. His personal life settled down during the
1970s-80s. He committed to a long-term relationship,travelled and dwelt on his
hobbies. While doing so he campained for gay rights and against HIV-AIDS. *



Throughout his lifetime, Rustin did whatever he could
to promote change in society. His personal motives can be clearly seen by his
words,’ It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full
opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality. ‘(From protest to politics, 1965). For his efforts in influencing
society, he was punished and served many sentences in prison. In 1943 he was arrested and sentenced
to work on a chain gang for several weeks for taking part in the protests
against segregated public transport. He was also arrested for 60 days on moral
charge for publically engaging in homosexual activity. Despite this, he
continued to live proudly as a gay man in a homophobic society. *


Bayard Rustin’s
legacy still lives on today. Films, books and artworks reference his effect on
society, and many awards are given to him in respect to his outstanding efforts
in Human Rights. ‘Several building and schools have been named after him as well as a
number of LGBT community programs and centers’ (Great Black Heroes,2015). A commemorative marker was
created in his honour on the grounds of his high school in his hometown. Also, many universities
such as Harvard and Yale have awarded him honorary degrees which is highly regarded. He was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in
Chicago that celebrates LGBT history and people. In 2013,
he was announced into the US Department of Labour Hall of Honour and
was also awarded the most prestigious award given in the US, the Presidential
Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, recognising his efforts related to
the infamous March on Washington for jobs and freedom.*


Although Rustin
was initially just a background figure of Human Rights, people are now starting
to recognise his significant effects on society and its changes to the way many
people live. His actions inspired many other young activists such as Martin
Luther King Jr and made pathways for many to advance with. Without Rustin’s
efforts, many aspects of society would be vastly different. His contribution to
Human Rights should not only be recognised but praised by society. It can be
clearly seen why he should no longer be known as the Invisible man’. Thank you
all for watching my presentation today and hope this speech is one you can all
reflect on greatly.




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