Bayard Rustin was one of the most important, impassioned leaders of the civil rights movement, from it’s earliest incarnations in the 1950s until well into the 1980s. Yet his is a name that is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Bayard Rustin’s involvement was a behind-the-scenes involvement, though no less important than any of the other names usually associated with the fight for civil rights. In addition, the fact that Bayard Rustin was also a gay man, and had been a member of the American Communist party probably insured his name would seldom be mentioned.
He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912, to Florence Rustin, one of eight children of Julia and Janifer Rustin. Florence’s child had been born out of wedlock; the father was Archie Hopkins. Julia and Janifer decided to raise young Bayard as their son–he did not know that his ‘sister’ Florence was his mother until he was in his early teens.
Julia Rustin was a member of the Society of Friends–the Quakers–and even though she attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination of her husband, she raised her children on the tenets of the Quaker faith: the equality of all human beings before God, the necessity for nonviolence, the importance of dealing with everyone with love and respect.
After attending Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College, Bayard moved to New York City in 1937, where he would live the rest of his life. He enrolled in City College of New York, though he never received a degree. It was at City College that Rustin began to organize for the Young Communist League of City College; the communists’ progressive stance on the issue of racial injustice appealed to him. with the Party’s about-face in the issue of segregation in the American military, he became disillusioned with communism and broke with the Young Communist League.
He soon found himself following the words of A. Philip Randolph,
head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and, at that time, heavily involved in the civil rights of African Americans. Bayard Rustin soon found himself heading the youth wing of a march on Washington that Randolph envisioned, but the march was cancelled when FDR issued Executive Order No. 8802, forbidding racial discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries.
Rustin was angered by Randolph’s decision to cancel the projected march, and he transferred his efforts at organization to the peace movement, first in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and then in the American Friends Service Committee, the Socialist Party, and the War Resisters League.
As a member of a government-recognized peace church–Rustin belonged to the Fifteenth Street Friends Meeting– he was entitled to do alternative service rather than serve in the military. But Rustin was unable to accept what he considered the ‘easy way out,’ given that many young men who did not belong to any recognized peace church were given harsh sentences for refusing to serve in the armed forces.
In 1944, Rustin was found guilty of violating the Selective Service Act and was sentenced to three years in a federal prison. He was sent to the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky, where he set about to resist the pervasive segregation that was the norm in US prisons at that time. Faced with vicious racism from some of the white guards and prisoners, Rustin faced frequent cruelty with courage and completely nonviolent resistance.
After his release from prison, Rustin once more joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)
, which staged a journey through four Southern and border states in 1947 to test the application of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that discrimination in seating in interstate transportation was illegal.
Rustin’s resistance to North Carolina’s Jim Crow law against integration in transportation earned him twenty-eight days’ hard labor on a chain gang, where he met with the usual racist taunts and tortures from his fellow white prisoners, as well as the guards.
From 1947 to 1952, Rustin traveled to India and then to Africa under the aegis of FOR to explore and understand more fully the concept of nonviolent demonstration, working within the Indian and Ghanaian independence movements.
In 1953, back in the US and lecturing for the American Association of University Women in Pasadena, Rustin was arrested for public indecency. It was the first time that Rustin’s homosexuality had come into public attention, and at that time homosexual behavior in all states was a criminal offense.
Although the gay rights movement in the United States was still many years away, Rustin’s conviction and his relatively open attitude about his homosexuality set the stage for him to become an elder gay icon, as well as an African American icon, in the years to come. Civil Right and gay rights became of a piece with his belief in the inherent dignity of Afro-Americans and other oppressed people.
A consequence of his arrest, was that Rustin was released from his position at the FOR.
During this time, what he considered the lowest point of his life, Bayard Rustin began a twelve-year stint as executive secretary of the War Resisters League
. He contributed greatly to a compilation of pacifist strategy–entitled Speak Truth To Power
–published in The Progressive
In 1956 Rustin was asked to provide Dr. Martin Luther King with some practical advice on how to apply Gandhian principles of nonviolence to the boycott of public transportation then taking shape in Montgomery, Alabama. On leave from the War Resisters League, Rustin spent time in Montgomery and Birmingham advising King, who had not yet completely embraced principles of nonviolence in his struggle.
By 1957, Rustin was playing a large role in the birth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and in the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington that took place in May of 1957 to urge President Eisenhower to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that US schools be desegregated.
The high point of Bayard Rustin’s political career, obviously, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which took place on August 28, 1963; where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. By all accounts Bayard Rustin was the March’s chief architect.
With small inroads in desegregation, baby steps actually, finally being made, Rustin came to believe that the time for militant action was over. Now that the legal foundation for segregation had been irrevocably shattered, came the larger, more difficult task of forging an alliance of dispossessed groups in American society into a progressive force.
Rustin saw this coalition encompassing African Americans and other minorities, trade unions, liberals, and religious groups. Rustin’s plan of action did not go further was due to, in the opinion of several political analysts, the war in Vietnam. The enormous monetary, psychological, and spiritual cost of war had eroded any chance of further progressive movement.
Rustin’s opposition to ‘identity politics’ also came under criticism by exponents of the Black Power movement. His criticism of affirmative action programs and black studies departments in American universities was not a popular viewpoint among his fellow African Americans. Rustin found himself isolated from the movement for a time.
Another viewpoint which did not endear Bayard Rustin to leftists or radical Black Power adherents was his consistent support of Israel. In the wake of the Holocaust, Rustin believed very strongly that the Jews needed their own state.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Rustin worked as a delegate for Freedom house, monitoring elections and human rights abuses in places like Chile, El Salvador, Grenada, Haiti, Poland, and Zimbabwe. In all his efforts Rustin evinced a lifelong, unwavering conviction in behalf of the value of democratic principles.
It was Rustin’s human rights expedition to Haiti in 1987 that drew the final curtain on his remarkable life. After his visit, under the aegis of Freedom House, to study prospects for democratic elections in Haiti, Rustin began to feel ill. His symptoms were initially misdiagnosed as intestinal parasites, but on August 21, 1987, Rustin was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital and diagnosed with a perforated appendix.
He died of cardiac arrest on August 24.
Although Bayard Rustin lived in the shadow of more charismatic civil rights leaders, like Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, he can lay claim to having been an indispensable, although mostly unsung, force behind the movement toward equality for America’s black citizens, and more largely for the rights of human beings around the world.
Throughout his life, Bayard Rustin’s Quakerism was a unifying force, and a strong plank in his personal philosophy, incorporating beliefs that were of central importance to him: that there is God in every person, that all are entitled to a decent life, and that a life of service to others is the way to happiness and true fulfillment.