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November 02, 2023

Bayard Rustin organized the March on Washington. Three months later, the FBI started watching him

The West Chester-born civil rights leader is the subject of the new Netflix biopic 'Rustin,' starring Colman Domingo

History Civil Rights
Bayard Rustin Orlando Fernandez/New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

Bayard Rustin (left) talks with fellow organizer Cleveland Robinson outside the Harlem headquarters for the March on Washington on Aug. 7, 1963.

Bayard Rustin was a seasoned civil rights organizer — with arrests and scars to prove it. Between the 1940s and 1960s, the West Chester native led a boycott of the segregated New York City public school system, advised Martin Luther King Jr. and served as the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He eventually received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013, over two decades after he died of a perforated appendix in 1987.

But in life and death, Rustin was frequently sidelined. His sexuality and communist associations put him in the crosshairs of powerful political enemies, as well as on the radar of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which spent thousands of dollars tapping his phone and detailing his movements in a 434-page file.

The most pivotal years of Rustin's organizing career are dramatized in "Rustin," a new biopic starring Colman Domingo now playing in theaters and on Netflix. Before he rose to King's inner circle, however, Rustin was already a well-known practitioner of civil disobedience. Heavily influenced by his Quaker grandmother, he was committed to nonviolence, even if it meant taking a beating from racist cops — which he did when he refused to move to the back of a Nashville-bound bus in 1942.

"My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being Black," he once wrote. "Rather it is rooted, fundamentally, in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal. Adhering to those values has meant making a stand against injustice, to the best of my ability, whenever and wherever it occurs."

Rustin was involved in many different groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the War Resisters League and the Congress of Racial Equality. In the 1930s, he was a member of the Young Communist League, a group he left in 1941 when it reversed its anti-war stance. This membership would become an obsession, however, for his opponents, arguably eclipsing their fixation on his sexuality. While Rustin's open queerness gave plenty of ammunition to politicians like Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Sen. Strom Thurmond, who spread rumors that Rustin was having an affair with King to discredit both men, his real and imagined ties to communism dominate the pages of his FBI file.

According to the file, which was declassified in 2009, the FBI began wiretapping Rustin's phone at his Harlem home on Nov. 15, 1963. This was mere months after he had recruited roughly a quarter-million people to D.C. for the March on Washington. While it is unclear if the march put Rustin on the FBI's radar, the bureau had noticed his frequent meetings with King — and worried about what exactly they were discussing.

"This technical surveillance has provided much valuable intelligence concerning communist influences in the civil rights movement, particularly through specific communist influences on King," J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director, wrote in a 1965 memo. "It has also provided information concerning the communist influences upon King relative to King's position concerning the Vietnam situation."

The earliest pages of Rustin's FBI file indicate a thrumming panic that King was talking to a pacifist, former communist and conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. The reverend had begun expressing anti-war sentiments in 1965, but he was still two years away from his blunter "Beyond Vietnam" speech. His association with Rustin, who had served two years in prison for draft evasion during World War II, indicated to federal agents a possible escalation of his rhetoric. In a January 1966 memo, agents noted with relief that King had "backed down from a controversial plan" to write letters "as a peace move to the heads of all countries involved in the Vietnam situation."

"Rustin is a very competent individual who is widely known in the civil rights field," the memo continues. "He is personally familiar with individuals with communist backgrounds. As one of Martin Luther King's closest advisors, he is in a position to wield considerable influence on King's activities. Technical coverage of Rustin is an important part of the overall coverage of King, who is the most prominent civil rights leader in the country today."

Through its surveillance of Rustin, the bureau gained advance details of King's marches in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. It noted that Rustin had "closely counseled" King on his response to the Watts riots and obsessively recorded any contact Rustin had with Benjamin J. Davis, one of several leaders in the Communist Party who was convicted under the Smith Act

The FBI was willing to spend both manpower and money on this operation. In 1966, bureau agents noted that they were spending roughly $254.83 a month monitoring Rustin, a sum that translates to $2,466.47 in today's dollars.

The file contains two letters from civilians expressing concerns about Rustin's supposed communist sympathies, apparently after reading propaganda from right-wing conspiracists at the John Birch Society. Similar letters trickled in, addressed directly to Hoover, when Rustin was appointed to the board of trustees at Notre Dame University in 1969.

But the file also contains two letters from Rustin himself. In one, he passes along a copy of his article in the March 1966 issue of "Commentary" about the Watts riots and the resulting McCone Commission's report to Hoover. The second letter arrived nearly a decade later, after Hoover had passed away.

"Gentlemen," it begins. "It has come to my attention that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has maintained an extensive dossier on my political and private life during the past 30 years. I request, under the freedom of information act, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation make available to me all records maintained by your agency with respect to me."

Rustin's request was rejected five days later on a technicality that must have felt rich coming from an agency that obsessively catalogued his conversations, travel and job history for decades — he hadn't provided enough information to verify his identity. 

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