This is the thirteenth entry in the series Honoring Black History.
During Black History Month, there is, understandably, a great deal of focus placed on the folks who risked their lives (and, in some cases, lost them) in the fight for the civil rights of their fellow Black Americans. Growing up, however, I never heard about Bayard Rustin and his incredible legacy of standing up for marginalized people, both here in the U.S. and abroad.
Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 and raised by his maternal grandparents in West Chester, PA. He was greatly influenced by his grandmother, a Quaker. As a relatively well-off member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she frequently hosted NAACP leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson in her home. Given his upbringing in this environment, it’s unsurprising that he found a way to wed the pacifism of Quakers with a strong interest in joining the Civil Rights movement.
Rustin’s first political action—a protest against poor cafeteria food—got him expelled from Wilberforce University. Bit by the bug of activism, he completed a training course offered by a Quaker social justice organization and moved to Harlem. While in New York, he became involved in the defense of the nine black “Scottsboro Boys” accused of raping two white women in Alabama.
In 1941, Rustin joined A. Philip Randolph and A. J. Muste in the Oval Office to inform President Roosevelt that they would be organizing a march on Washington if he did not desegregate the military and provide fair working opportunities for the black community. Randolph cancelled the march when Roosevelt signed the Fair Employment Act, despite Rustin’s reservations.
Following that, Rustin went to California. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had ordered the imprisonment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps. During their incarceration, Rustin worked and organized for the protection of these Americans’ property.
In 1942, Rustin boarded a bus from Louisville, KY to Nashville, TN and sat in the second row in protest of the segregation of interstate travel and the American South’s Jim Crow laws. For this non-violent transgression, he was arrested outside of Nashville and beaten by police. When asked about it later, he recalled:
As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it, whereupon its mother said, ‘Don’t touch a n*****.’ 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.” I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, I owe it to that child, that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.
This was yet another clear example of Rustin’s commitment to the social justice pacifism of the Quakers.
That same year, Rustin became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a pacifist organization heavily influenced by the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Krishnalal Shridharani. In 1947, he and CORE co-founder George Houser organized the first of the Freedom Rides to test Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia’s ban on racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin was arrested and served 27 days in a chain gang in North Carolina for his participation.
In 1948, Rustin travelled to India to learn more about non-violent civil resistance. During this period, he also met with leaders of independence movements from Ghana and Nigeria and, in 1951, founded the Committee to Support South African Resistance.
Back in the States, Rustin became an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. on Gandhian tactics. King was in the process of planning the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rustin encouraged him to turn it into a non-violent protest rather than relying on guns for protection. Later, Rustin and King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but Rustin was forced out by other leaders in the community who were concerned with his “morals” (Rustin was gay).
Not dissuaded by his ouster, Rustin organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Weeks before the march, renown jackass—and segregationist—Strom Thurmond “filled eight pages of the Congressional Record with detailed denunciations of Rustin as a draft-dodging communist homosexual and a convicted ‘sex pervert.’” (Rustin was arrested in Pasadena for lewd conduct—consensual relations with another man in a parked car—in 1953.) Thurmond even tried to paint Rustin’s relationship with King as a homosexual one, which both men denied. Rustin, nevertheless, organized the hell out of the March, despite the fact that many in the civil rights movement didn’t want him associated with it.
Up until his death in 1987, Bayard Rustin fought—non-violently for the most part, though he did become a little more apt to condone violence in his later years—for anyone he saw as oppressed. Oddly, however, he never saw himself as a member of the struggle for gay rights. That said, Rustin saw a great deal of alignment between the struggle for black equality and the gay rights movement.
In 2013, Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bayard Rustin. He called Bayard “an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all” who “fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad.” And he’s right: Bayard Rustin was an extraordinary man whose influence on the civil rights movement was profound, both in its impact and in its pacifism.
You can read more about Bayard Rustin at rustin.org.
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