Raised as a Quaker, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was an openly gay African-American activist and devout pacifist who, over the course of five decades, had an immeasurable impact on the civil rights movement in the United States and social justice efforts abroad. One of his many roles was as chief advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s and early 1960s, to whom he taught Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance. However, despite working tirelessly for the civil rights cause, Rustin was often forced to give up leadership roles and recognition because of prejudice towards his homosexuality.
From 1963 until his 1987 death, Rustin lived in apartment 9J, building 7 in the Penn South complex in Chelsea. In 1977, his partner Walter Naegle moved in. While living here, Rustin served as the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which is now largely remembered for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Working from offices at 170 West 130th Street in Harlem, Rustin and others would sometimes continue their strategy meetings into the evenings in his apartment.
Some of Rustin’s other important efforts during this time period include helming the A. Philip Randolph Institute, working with Turn Toward Peace and the World Without War Council, and pushing for full integration of New York City schools. In the 1970s, he became involved with international human rights issues, such as designing Project South Africa and serving as a roving ambassador for Freedom House at 20 West 40th Street (demolished). At the end of his life, he testified in support of the gay rights bill, which the New York City Council finally passed in 1986.
“…of all the leaders of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin lived and worked in the deepest shadows, not because he was a closeted gay man but because he wasn’t trying to hide who he was…I ask that if you teach children one new name from the heroes of black history, please let it be Bayard Rustin.”
In recent years, Rustin’s legacy has been recognized in several biographies, a 2003 biographical film, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, the 2013 Medal of Freedom awarded by President Barack Obama, and the 2016 listing of this Manhattan residence on the National Register of Historic Places (see link to nomination form, which provides an in-depth history of Rustin, in the “Read More” section below).