Mugshot Monday brings us this Federal Bureau of Prisons mugshot of Bayard Rustin, circa 1944. Recently awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, Rustin is one of our political, sartorial and intellectual icons of the twentieth century. He served as a leading force in the civil rights movement, consulted MLK on Gandhian tactics he learned in India and organized the March on Washington as a relatively young gay man. His activism extended into the remainder of his life as a civil rights hero and staunch advocate for lesbian and gay rights. His was a mission of integration, compassion and fierce self-love, and he never cowed to pressures from within the civil rights movement to hide or downplay his sexuality. “Physically, sexually he was the most compelling man I have ever seen,” Gay Morenus recalled of Rustin, whom she met in Chapel Hill, North Carolina three years after this mugshot was taken. With colleagues from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, he was there on a mission: use non-violent direct action to challenge state segregation laws on interstate public transportation; in this case, buses. For this pre-echo of the 1961 Freedom Rides, Rustin would eventually spend twenty-two days on a North Carolina chain gang. Rustin was no stranger to punishment: for refusing both the draft and alternative, non-combat service, the West Chester, Pennsylvania-raised Quaker had spent twenty-eight months (February 1944 – June 1946) in federal prison. Though he’d be arrested for civil disobedience many more times, one incident stands out. From the Chicago Defender, January 31, 1953:
Bayard Rustin, 40, prominent lecturer and fearless fighter for civil rights, was sentenced to 60 days in county jail on a morals charge on a guilty plea… He was arrested by Pasadena police last Thursday in company with two white men in an auto parked near a hotel. The other men… were given similar sentences…sexual deviates often referred to as “queers.”
Rustin believed that acceptance, diversity and mutual respect were the underpinnings of all strata of a civil society, regardless of the purported focus of any given movement. He understood love as the foundation for progress. What does it mean to love — to live — so abundantly? Described by an old female friend as ”the best lay I ever had,” American political activism could well say the same.