Pride Month Spotlight: Lorraine Hansberry and Bayard Rustin

In honor of Pride Month, BR Pride, Blank Rome’s LGBTQ+ affinity group, will be highlighting the contributions and achievements of Black LGBTQ individuals of the past and present.

This week, we are shining our spotlight on Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) and Bayard Rustin (1912–1987). 

Playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry is best known for her groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered on Broadway in 1959, making Hansberry the first Black woman playwright to have her play performed on Broadway. Centered on the lives of Black Americans living in racially segregated Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun won the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle for best play of the year when Hansberry was just 29 years old. 

Hansberrys friend James Baldwin explained the play’s significance in “Sweet Lorraine”: “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater. And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people had ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.” Hansberry grew up in a politically active household on Chicago’s South Side, with her father bringing a lawsuit (which ultimately landed at the U.S. Supreme Court) challenging racially restrictive covenants which barred African Americans from purchasing or leasing land in a Chicago neighborhood and thus prevented integration. The Hansberrys were close with prominent Black artists and activists, including W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes, who influenced Hansberry’s political and artistic endeavors.

Though Hansberry married a white man she met on a picket line, she privately identified as a lesbian and contributed to The Ladder, a monthly lesbian publication, writing letters and short stories under the pen name Emily Jones, or using her initials. Her social circle consisted of white lesbians, including future LGBT activist Edie Windsor, and while Hansberry was generally isolated from other lesbian artists of color, her work would inspire Audre Lorde, who wrote in her 1986 book, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities, “When you see the plays and read the words of Lorraine Hansberry, you are reading the words of a woman who loved women deeply.” Hansberry’s life was tragically cut short when she died in early 1965, at the age of 34, from pancreatic cancer. More than 700 people attended her funeral, where her friend Nina Simone and her mentor Paul Robeson sang songs and Langston Hughes read a poem in her honor. 

Bayard Rustin was an integral part of the civil rights movement, best known for his work while advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin’s philosophy was inspired by Quaker pacifism, socialism as taught by A. Philip Randolph, and the theory of non-violent protest, as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi. Rustin became a key advisor to King during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, and he is credited with providing King with a deep understanding of nonviolent ideas and tactics. 

Rustin was a principal organizer of the Freedom Rides, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

  • Freedom Rides started in 1961 and were comprised of white and African American activists who participated in bus rides through the South to protest segregated interstate buses, which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
  • The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is a civil rights organization established in 1957 that adopted nonviolent mass action as the cornerstone of its strategy and that affiliated with local community organizations across the South.
  • The 1963 March on Washington was the civil rights march at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  It drew 250,000 participants and is credited with being a contributing factor in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Rustin was also involved in many humanitarian missions, aiding refugees from communist Vietnam and Cambodia.  As a gay man in a time when few were public, Bayard Rustin met resistance from some of his colleagues who were concerned that his sexuality, which was fairly well-known, and his socialist politics would detract from the message. He was frequently forced to operate behind the scenes, but nevertheless was regarded as a highly influential and important leader of the civil rights movement.  In the 1980s, he became involved in gay-rights causes, as both an activist and supporter.  President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, in 2013.