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Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin Talks "Absolute Necessity" of Coming Out in Newly Found Audio

He organized the March on Washington but was pushed to the sidelines because he was openly gay.

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington and was a close adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was also openly gay, leading to controversy; many within the movement questioned if his visibility was good for the cause.

As a result, Rustin was not as vocal a spokesperson as his lifelong organizing efforts deserved, and he spent much of his time working behind the scenes. He was able to become more front and center in subsequent years, fighting for gay rights before his death in 1987, at the age of 75.

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Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, speaks to the crowd of marchers from the Lincoln Memorial.

Bayard Rustin speaks to crowd of marchers from the Lincoln Memorial.

"At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him," Rustin says in a mid-1980s Washington Blade interview, the audio of which was recently uncovered.

This previously unheard recording was kept by Rustin's surviving partner, Walter Naegle, and discovered by Making Gay History producer Sara Burninghan, who is airing it on the podcast.

Regardless, Rustin refused to remain silent about who he was. He said he realized it was "an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn't I was a part of the prejudice."

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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 25: Martin Luther King III and honoree Walter Naegle attend Logo's "Trailblazer Honors" 2015 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on June 25, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Logo)

Martin Luther King III and honoree Walter Naegle attend Logo's Trailblazer Honors 2015 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

"I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me," he said, noting that he first felt pulled to be open about being gay during an incident in the 1940s, when he protested segregated buses.

Rustin recalled walking to the back of the bus when a white child playfully pulled on his tie, causing his mother to yell at the boy for touching the man, whom she referred to using a racial slur.

"If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it's going to end up saying, 'They like it back there, I've never seen anybody protest against it,'" he remembered thinking.

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Civil rights leaders gather together during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, NJ. From left to right: the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, a leader of the successful Montgomery bus boycott, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Aaron E. Henry, chairman of the Mississippi branch of the N.A.A.C.P for three decades, and Bayard Rustin, political adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aaron E. Henry, and Rustin at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Instead, Rustin decided he owed it to that child to get arrested and demonstrate that black people were not willing participants in their oppression.

"I feel like I was robbed of my history as a gay person," Making Gay History host Eric Marcus told NPR. "Growing up, if I'd known known about someone like him, it would've been transformative."

Hear snippets of Rustin's newly found audio in Marcus' NPR interview below.