Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The man black history erased

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
August 22, 2013 -- Updated 0118 GMT (0918 HKT)
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
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT