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Gay Civil Rights Leader Grounded In Quaker Upbringing


One of the historical figures depicted on the Legacy Wall, on display at Illinois State University's Milner Library through Feb. 27, is civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. The Legacy Wall contains mini-biographies of LGBT people from all walks of life.

As part of the Legacy Wall display, Carlos Figueroa of Ithaca College presented a talk on Rustin, in advance of his upcoming book entitled Bayard Rustin: Black Gay Quaker Thinker and Civil Rights & Labor Activist. Figueroa said, "Rustin grounded all of his activism in his Quaker upbringing and heritage."

Figueroa said Rustin's sexuality wasn't acceptable much during his work in the 30s, 40s and 50s, but he was not totally shut out. "In the Quaker community he was working in, in New York and Philadelphia," Figueroa said, "Rustin's sexuality was certainly frowned upon, but it was more embraced than not."

Figueroa said Rustin had an "immense impact" on the non-violent doctrine of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said there was an incident when Rustin was visiting King at his home and noticed many guns in plain view. "Rustin asked King about them," Figueroa said, "and King said he needed them to keep his family safe. That's when Rustin told him if he was preaching non-violence then he needed to act non-violently. The guns were sending the wrong message."

Figueroa said Rustin drew this peaceful philosophy from the Ghandian perspective and traditional Quaker non-violent testimonies.

Willis is a Bloomington, IL, native. During his senior year at Bloomington High School, he finished third in the "Radio Speaking" division of the state speech contest, the only year he competed.