Bayard Taylor Rustin was born in West Chester, Pa., March 17, 1912. He had no relationship with his father, and his 16-year-old mother, Florence, was so young he thought she was his sister. From his grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin, he took his Quaker “values,” which, in his words, “were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal,”
As a teenager, Rustin wrote poems, played left tackle on the high school football team and, according to lore, staged an impromptu sit-in at a restaurant that would serve his white teammates but not him. When Rustin told his grandmother he preferred the company of young men to girls, she simply said, “I suppose that’s what you need to do.”
In 1937, Rustin moved to New York City after bouncing between Wilberforce University and Cheney State Teachers College. Enrolling at City College, he devoted himself to singing, performing with the Josh White Quartet and in the musical John Henry with Paul Robeson. He also joined the Young Communist League. Though he soon quit the party after it ordered him to cease protesting racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces. By this time he was already on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Disappointed when the 1941 March on Washington was called off, Rustin joined the pacifist Rev. A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation, and when FOR members in Chicago launched the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, Rustin traveled around the country speaking out. Two years later, he was arrested for failing to appear before his draft board and refusing alternative service as a conscientious objector. Sentenced to three years in prison, he ended up serving 26 months, angering authorities with his desegregation protests and open homosexuality to the point they transferred him to a higher-security prison.