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Friday, September 22, 2023

Guest Commentary

King’s personal legacy lives on at UH

The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is broad and varied. For many of us, the civil rights leader is a reminder of the promise and hope that this country represents for all its citizens. But another great legacy of Dr. King is far more personal — he represented the kind of leader who accepted all those willing to work with him no matter who they were. One of the great architects of the Civil Rights Movement who worked alongside King was Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin has been credited with being one of the great organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and a strong advisor and supporter of King. Rustin was also a gay man who did not hide who he was from those he worked with, and King accepted Rustin as an equal partner in their efforts to bring change to this country.

Dr. King lived the words he spoke when he supported a gay man and worked closely with him to create the successful March on Washington. Rustin remained a close advisor, and the two also worked closely together on the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956.

In Dr. King’s time, being a homosexual was a criminal offense, yet he was a visionary of how we all should treat each other. He did not judge Rustin or keep him out of the Civil Rights Movement like others tried to do. King often attempted to convince others to allow Rustin full participation in the movement. Few supported Dr. King in his efforts to make sure the Civil Rights Movement included all those who wanted to participate.

Contemporary notions of sexuality have moved well beyond the criminalization of sexual orientation, and Dr. King had moved beyond the narrow assumptions of his historical moment. He never distanced himself from Rustin. He treated Rustin as an equal and respected the organizational skills Rustin brought to the movement.

The legacy Dr. King has left us is one of nonviolent, peaceful protest to ensure rights for all citizens and build coalitions with others to make this country a fully inclusive nation respectful of everyone. But the personal legacy he has left me is one in which a man judged individuals not by the orientation of their sexuality, but by the content of their character.

Maria C. Gonzalez is an associate professor in the English department.

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