While Bayard Rustin is well known to many, it should be the case that his name can be called up as easily as that of Martin Luther King Jr.
He was a brilliant American civil rights, gay rights, and nonviolence activist who has been called “the unknown hero” of the civil rights movement. A. Philip Randolph introduced Rustin at the March on Washington, saying he was “a philosopher of a non-violent system of behavior in seeking to bring about social change for the advancement of justice, and freedom and human dignity.” In fact, Rustin is who brought Gandhi’s philosophy to the American civil rights movement, and taught these ideals to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rustin was born in 1912 to a teen mother, and raised by his grandparents. He was exceptionally smart (valedictorian his senior year in high school), musically gifted (attending college on a music scholarship for singing), athletic (played left tackle on his high school football team), and expressive (writing poetry.) Click here to listen to his lovely tenor voice singing “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow.”
His hometown of West Chester, PA is just north of the Mason-Dixon line and was a battleground between abolitionists and slave catchers from 1780-1865. Quakers in the area helped at least 2,500 escaped slaves on their path to freedom on the Underground Railroad. His Quaker upbringing in this community is why he was an ardent and vocal activist for the the rights of black people and why he so easily took to Ghandi’s teachings.
Rumors say his activism started as a teen, when he staged an impromptu sit-in at a restaurant that would not serve him while they served his white teammates. In 1936, he was expelled from his first college for organizing a strike in response to the cafeteria’s subpar food. In 1937, while attending college in Ohio, he joined the the Quaker pacifist group, the American Friends Service Committee. In 1941, as a member of an AFSC delegation to Puerto Rico, Rustin investigated the problems of conscientious objectors.
When he moved to New York City in 1938, he briefly joined the Young Communist League. Some say the reason he broke ties with them in 1941 is because the Communists reversed their anti-war policy after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union; others say it was because YCL had no interest in American racial politics and he was directly asked to cease his action in this area.
Rustin then began working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), first as a race relation secretary and then as secretary for student and general affairs. One of his first big actions with FOR was going to California to help protect the property of 120,000 American-born Japanese who had been imprisoned in internment camps.
“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” –
In 1942, Rustin and several other members of FOR founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial civil rights organization that fought against segregation and corruption in a nonviolent way. That same year, while on a bus going from Louisville to Nashville, Rustin refused to sit in the back and was beaten and taken to jail…this was 13 years before the famed Rosa Parks did her similar action.
Because of his commitment to pacifism, Rustin was imprisoned in 1944 for being a conscientious objector to the World War II draft. This write up goes into great detail about his 26 months in prison – a time most historians and articles seem to gloss over, if they even mention it at all. While in prison, he “was constantly receiving disciplinary notices for ‘arousing and agitating’ fellow prisoners in regards to various topics including medical care, mail policies, and the integration of the dining facilities.”
In 1945, while still in prison, Rustin organized FOR’s Free India Committee, which was a decolonizing group in support of India against the British empire. Rustin was supposed to attend a conference on pacifism organized by Ghandi in India in 1949, but the conference didn’t happen because of Gandhi’s assassination. Instead, Rustin spent seven weeks in India and Pakistan so he could learn Gandhian nonviolent civil resistance techniques. He returned to India in 1960 to attend the War Resisters International Conference, and he returned to Pakistan in 1982 to visit Afghan refugees.
In 1947, he initiated a Freedom Ride in order to use civil disobedience to challenge racial segregation on interstate busing.
Rustin was arrested again in 1952, but this time the charges were for “vagrancy and lewd conduct” for sexual activity with another man in a parked car. He plead guilty to the lesser charge of “sex perversion” and spent 60 days in jail. While Rustin’s sexuality was not hidden from friends and family, homosexual activity was still criminalized throughout the US. The conviction in California led to him being fired from FOR.
In 1956, Rustin went to Alabama to support MLK and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and then helped MLK organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1956-1957. After this, Rustin demonstrated against the French government’s nuclear test program in North Africa.
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” – Bayard Rustin
Rustin again worked with his mentor and colleague, A. Philip Randolph, this time on planning what turned out to be one of the largest non-violent protests in the US: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This was when MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and is credited with being the catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rustin, as Deputy Director of the march, closed out the speeches by reading their demands (listen here), which included decent housing, integrated education, the right to vote, and an increase in the national minimum wage.
“Rustin stands at the confluence of the great struggles for civil, legal and human rights by African-Americans and lesbian and gay Americans.” – Rustin.Org
Also in 1964, Rustin was invited to Harlem to protest segregation by coordinating a citywide boycott of public schools. Over 400,000 people participated in this one-day protest.
After this, Rustin started to move into the political realm. He believed that the African-American community needed to change its strategy by building a political alliance with white unions, organizations, and churches. He believed that together they could pursue a common economic agenda. He became disenfranchised by black-identity politics because it alienated potential white allies. This shift to politics caused a divide between Rustin and former colleagues in grassroots movements, and possibly contributed to why his name is not celebrated nor his accomplishments widely honored.
His work in politics initially focused on the labor movement. He was the founder and Director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which coordinated the AFL-CIO’s work on civil rights and economic justice. In 1972, he became a national co-chairman of the Socialist Party of America (which later became Social Democrats USA). As the years went on, sadly, his organizing and public activism waned and his ardent pacifism turned into support of various military actions.
In 1986, the year before Rustin died and when homosexuality and AIDS was becoming a misunderstood talking point in households across the nation, he said that the gay community would guide the next wave of social evolution. (Interesting side note: The Quaker community was among the first to show support of the gay community, performing the first same-sex “celebration of commitment” in 1981.)
“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “n***s” are gays. …It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. …The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.” – Bayard Rustin
Over the years, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, because he was a black man who regularly raised his voice against inequity and because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic time. Yet, in 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.