Bayard Rustin: The Fight for Racial Justice and Gay Rights

This lesson centers on the invaluable work and activism of Bayard Rustin. Rustin was not only dedicated to orchestrating the civil rights movement; he was also one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisors, and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to: 

  • learn how Bayard Rustin was an instrumental figure in the modern civil rights movement. 
  • develop an awareness of how individuals have the ability to simultaneously advocate for multiple causes, even if those causes conflict or overlap. 
  • analyze the connection between civil rights and gay rights. 
  • understand the similarities and differences between racism and heterosexism.
Essential Questions
  • How do individuals, their beliefs, and actions evolve over time?


  • appropriating [uh-proh-pree-eyt-ing] (verb) taking something in an unfair way 
  • Gandhian [gahn-dee-uhn] (adjective) relating to Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance  
  • heterosexist [het-er-uh-sek-sist] (adjective) relating to a prejudice attitude against people who are gay 
  • pacifism [pas-uh-fiz-uh m] (noun) a belief in non-violence 
  • villainize [vil-uh-nahyz] (verb) to speak ill of someone as if he or she is a villain


Suggested Procedure

1.  Give students the Exploring Vocabulary handout and tell them that they will read part of the article, “Gays are the New Niggers." (Note: The recommended central text for this lesson uses the n-word. For information on the n-word, review  the Learning for Justice article “Straight Talk About the N-Word” and the accompanying toolkit.) 

Have students to read the first seven paragraphs independently, and while reading underline these words: heterosexist, appropriating, pacifism, Gandhian and villainized. 

After students finish reading, have them discuss how each vocabulary word is used, with a partner or as an entire class. Following the discussion, ask students to define each term independently, using their own words in complete sentences, and explain how it applies to Bayard Rustin’s life and activism.  

2.  Divide students into small groups, and ask them to analyze the rest of the article and react to it. (Note: Consider doing this task as a jigsaw technique by assigning each group a different excerpt). Ask students: “What is the statement being made? What reasoning is used to make the statement? Do you agree or disagree? Why?” 

Explain to students that it’s important to analyze or deconstruct the text. Have them consider some of these suggested questions from the Center for Media Literacy: “Who created this message? How might different people understand this message differently from me? Whose point of view is presented? What reasons might an individual have for being interested in this message?” (Note: For more information on media literacy, visit the Center for Media Literacy.) 

3.  Ask students to read “Gays are the New Niggers” again and complete the graphic organizerabout the life of Bayard Rustin, which asks the following questions: In what organizations was Rustin active? When was he involved with these organizations? What cause or movement did the organization support? What role did Rustin play with the group? What leaders and activists did he meet due to the diversity of his political activism?  

4.  Have a class discussion about Rustin’s accomplishments and their significance. Ask students some of the following questions: “Is it possible to talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the civil rights movement without also discussing Bayard Rustin? How did Rustin directly influence Dr. King’s leadership philosophy? How did Dr. King feel about Rustin’s homosexuality? Did Rustin’s sexuality impact the ways in which he was able to contribute to the civil rights movement? What does Rustin’s relationship with Dr. King reveal about the connection between gay rights and civil rights? Are gay rights separate from civil rights? Do you think that gay rights and civil rights should be studied separately, or should they be taught together?” 

5.  Using the completed Graphic Organizer as resource, ask members of the class to reflect on what they learned about Bayard Rustin and how their understanding of him evolved throughout the activity. Have them write an essay to answer these questions: “How did Rustin contribute to the civil rights movement despite the challenges he faced as a gay man? What does Rustin’s life and activism represent about him as an individual, as well as how ideas, perceptions and people evolve over time? What accounts for the changes in Rustin’s willingness to openly advocate for gay rights in his later years? Did Rustin change? Did society change?” Ask students to support their answers using evidence from the text. Tell them that their answers must include examples that demonstrate how Rustin changed or did not change. 

Common Core State Standards: R.1, R.2, R.3, R.4, R.10, W.1, W.2, W.4, W.9, SL.1, SL. 2, SL.3, SL.4, L.1, L.2, L.5


Extension Activity

Suggest to students that they help create a Bayard Rustin Award at their school—an award that would recognize a diverse group of students who embody the qualities that made Bayard Rustin such an important activist. With the help of a faculty mentor, ask students to develop a list of personal qualities and other criteria that will be used to select recipients.  

Note that Bayard Rustin’s birthday is March 17th. You could honor Rustin’s legacy by announcing the group of students chosen by their peers to receive the award on that day. The award can be a certificate for each winner or another appropriate gesture.