Question of the Month:

Give Bayard Rustin the Respect He Deserves

September 2005

Q:  Bayard Rustin was the most important figure during the civil rights movement but because he was gay he does not get much respect. I don't suppose you can agree?

-- Ray Nevin, Buffalo, NY

Bayard Rustin A:  Although Bayard Rustin was one of the most important leaders of the American civil rights movement from the advent of its modern period in the 1950s until well into the 1980s, his name was seldom mentioned; he received comparatively little press or media attention, and others' names were usually much more readily associated with the movement than his was. His was a behind-the-scenes role that, for all its importance, never garnered Rustin the public acclaim he deserved. Rustin's homosexuality and early communist affiliation probably meant that the importance of his contribution to the civil rights and peace movements would never be acknowledged. However, fairness demands that the extent of Rustin's work receive a fair public reception.

Bayard Taylor Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, to Florence Rustin, one of eight children of Julia and Janifer Rustin of West Chester, Pennsylvania. 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, the youngest of the large Rustin family. Julia Rustin had been raised a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), and even though she attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination of her husband, she impressed on the children she raised certain Quaker principles: the equality of all human beings before God, the vital need for nonviolence, the importance of dealing with everyone with love and respect.

Early Years

Rustin was a gifted and successful student in the schools of West Chester, both academically and on his high school track and football teams. It was during this period of his life that Bayard began to demonstrate his gift for singing with a beautiful tenor voice. He attended Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College. In 1937 he moved to New York City, where he was to live the rest of his life. He enrolled in the City College of New York, although he never received a degree. It was at this time 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, although he began to be disillusioned with them after the Communist Party's abrupt about-face on the issue of segregation in the American military in the wake of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. He broke with the Young Communist League and soon found himself seeking out A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and at that time the leading articulator of the rights of Afro-Americans. He soon headed the youth wing of a march on Washington that Randolph envisioned. Randolph called off the demonstration when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802, forbidding racial discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries. Randolph's calling off of the projected march caused a temporary breach between him and Bayard Rustin, and Rustin transferred his organizing efforts to the peace movement, first in the Fellowship of Reconciliation and later in the American Friends Service Committee, the Socialist Party, and the War Resisters League.

As a member of one of the government-recognized peace churches -- he had been a member of the Fifteenth Street Friends Meeting since shortly after moving to New York -- he was entitled to do alternative service rather than serve in the armed services. Rustin found himself unable to accept this easy way out, given the fact that many young men who were not members of the recognized peace churches were receiving harsh prison sentences for refusing to serve. In 1944, Rustin was found guilty of violating the Selective Service Act and was sentenced to three years in a federal prison. In March 1944 Rustin was sent to the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. He then set about to resist the pervasive segregation then the norm in prisons in the United States. Although faced with vicious racism from some of the prison guards and white prisoners, Rustin faced frequent cruelty with courage and completely nonviolent resistance.

The Post-World War II Period

On release from prison, Rustin got involved again with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which staged a journey of reconciliation 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 28 days' hard labor on a chain gang, where he met with the usual racist taunts and tortures on the part of his imprisoners.

Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin traveled first to India and then to Africa under the aegis of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, exploring the nonviolent dimensions of the Indian and Ghanaian independence movements.

In 1953 Rustin was arrested for public indecency in Pasadena, California, while lecturing under the auspices of the American Association of University Women. 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 in the future, Rustin's conviction and his relatively open attitude about his homosexuality set the stage for him to become an elder gay icon in the decades to come. As the years went on, gay rights became entwined with his belief in the inherent dignity of Afro-Americans and other oppressed people. As a consequence of his arrest, Rustin was released from his position on the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

It was at this low point in his life that Bayard Rustin began a 12-year stint as executive secretary of the War Resisters League. Rustin also contributed greatly to a compilation of pacifist strategy, published in The Progressive and also as a monograph in 1959 by the American Friends Service Committee and entitled Speak Truth to Power.

In 1956 Rustin was approached by Lillian Smith, the celebrated Southern novelist who authored Strange Fruit, 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 busy playing a large role in the birth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and in the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington that took place on May 17, 1957, to urge President Eisenhower to enforce the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that the nation's schools be desegregated. Rustin was also instrumental in organizing two Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959.

The 1960s

Arguably the high point of Bayard Rustin's political career was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which took place on August 28, 1963, the place of Dr. Martin Luther King's stirring "I Have a Dream" speech. Rustin was by all accounts the March's chief architect. To devise a march of at least one-quarter of a million participants and to coordinate the various sometimes fractious civil rights organizations that played a part in it was a herculean feat of mobilization.

By 1965 Rustin had come to believe that the period for militant street action had come to an end; the legal foundation for segregation had been irrevocably shattered. Now 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 Afro-Americans and other minorities, trade unions, liberals, and religious groups. That Rustin's plan of action did not go further was, in the opinion of several political analysts, because of the war in Vietnam, whose enormous monetary, psychological, and spiritual cost managed to subsume any progressive movement. Rustin's steadfast opposition to identity politics also came under criticism by exponents of the developing Black Power movement. His critical stance toward affirmative action programs and black studies departments in American universities was not a popular viewpoint among many of his fellow Afro-Americans, and as at various other times of his life Rustin found himself to a certain extent isolated.

Another viewpoint which did not endear Bayard Rustin to many 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. While further believing that the state of Israel had been guilty of injustices against Palestinians, he nonetheless contended that the vituperative clamor on the part of Middle Eastern states to destroy Israel had provoked many of the excesses of the Israeli government.

Later Years

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Rustin worked as a delegate for the organization Freedom House, monitoring elections and the status of human rights in countries 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 that unhappy country, Rustin began to feel unwell. 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, he can lay real claim to have been an indispensable unsung force behind the movement toward equality for America's black citizens, and more largely for the rights of humans around the globe, in the 20th century. Throughout his life, Rustin's Quakerism was a unifying force in his life and a strong plank in his personal philosophy, incorporating beliefs that were of central importance to him: that there is a piece of 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.

September 2005 response by Buzz Haughton, University of California, Davis


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