Monday, January 20, 2014

Angelic Troublemaker: The Quiet Legacy of Bayard Rustin

When I say I love [Sen. James] Eastland, it sounds preposterous – a man who brutalizes people. But you love him or you wouldn’t be here. You’re going to Mississippi to create social change – and you love Eastland in your desire to create conditions which will redeem his children. Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the man but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it – at which point they can become human too.” – Bayard Rustin
History, like memory, is elusive; what we choose to remember and document but a collage of selective images and stories. What seems important one day is lost on another, set aside in a vacant warehouse filled with old history books and dusty memoirs. As the years progress, we remember less and immortalize but a small sampling of men and women who over their lifetimes influenced the course of human events.

“Never doubt,” wrote Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The life and times of Bayard Rustin brings truth to that sentiment. A black man in a predominantly white society; a gay man in a homophobic society; a pacifist in a militaristic society; an activist in a passive and apathetic society, he was a man of courage, grace, and action. The history books have largely overlooked this quietly courageous and visionary man, but his life demands attention.

To examine the life of Bayard Rustin first requires mention of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to whom we pay tribute on this day. King became the face of the civil rights movement in 1955, when as a 26 year-old preacher he was called upon to lead a boycott of the public bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. Employing the tactics of nonviolent protest similar to that utilized by Mahatma Gandhi in India twenty years before, King would go on to lead a movement aimed at ending segregation in the Jim Crow South. Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to yield her seat on a public bus to a white man, the Montgomery bus boycott awakened the American conscience to the injustices of racism and segregation. By the time King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington seven years later, he had become the leading voice in support of racial equality; the moral conscience of the United States in the fight for civil rights and social justice. 

I was not yet nine years old when King was assassinated in 1968. Too young to fully comprehend the historic impact of his loss, I knew even then that the United States would never be the same again. I mourn still for America.

Often overlooked in this history, however, is Bayard Rustin, who introduced King to the principles of Gandhian non-violence, helped instrumentally in the bus boycott, and almost single-handedly orchestrated the March on Washington. Positive change, said Rustin, often requires “social dislocation and creative trouble."

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, just 40 miles from my home in Jenkintown, and raised in the Quaker tradition by his grandmother, Rustin was a committed pacifist. Although he never finished college, he was a genuine intellectual, a life-long student of poetry, literature, history, and religion. As a high school football star, he recited poetry while helping opposing players to their feet. Brilliant and passionate, he became dedicated at a young age to challenging injustice. 

Rustin’s activism began in the 1930s when he joined the Young Communist League, a branch of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Not yet the bogeyman it would become after the Second World War, the CPUSA was then full of idealistic, committed Americans fighting racism, inequality, and injustice. This was before McCarthyism and the Cold War, when Communism provided an idealistic, if misguided “utopian” alternative to the perceived failures of capitalism during the Great Depression. As the only political party at that time advocating complete racial equality, the CPUSA attracted black intellectuals and artists, along with Jewish and other left-leaning activists who opposed Hitler and fascism in Europe. Although Rustin quit the party after a few years and was avowedly anti-Communist the remainder of his life, this past association would forever haunt him. 

In the early 1940s, Rustin was hired to do field work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a Christian pacifist organization co-founded by the Rev. A.J. Muste, Rustin’s life-long mentor. Muste taught Rustin that resistance to war was part of a larger Christian commitment to a life of love and nonviolence. He studied the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi in India and believed nonviolence a way of life that required one “to express love at every moment and in every relationship, to be channels of this quiet, unobtrusive, persistent force which is always there.” Rustin applied these principles to buses and lunch counters throughout the South, often at great peril to his physical safety and well-being. Repeatedly beaten and jailed, it was courageous and dangerous work that occurred out of the media spotlight and with little notice up North.

Following America’s entry into World War II, Rustin’s pacifism and Quaker beliefs counseled him to become a conscientious objector, an unpopular stance during a popular war for which he served 27 months in prison. “Americans wanted peace, but not pacifism,” wrote John D’Emilio in Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (University of Chicago Press, 2003).  Even in prison, Rustin was deemed a troublemaker for protesting segregated facilities and the unequal treatment of minorities. His incarceration was at times harsh and brutal.

Following his release, in 1947 Rustin participated in the first Freedom Rides in U.S. history. Fourteen years before the better known Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, the Journey of Reconciliation constituted sixteen brave souls from FOR, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In April, they began a two week journey to test a Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel. Many of the riders, including Rustin, were beaten and arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang.

Members of the Journey of Reconciliation, 1947.
Rustin is in the middle, wearing a bow tie. 
Over the next several years, Rustin organized hundreds of nonviolent acts of civil disobedience throughout the South. “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” he said. Rustin’s courage in the face of physical violence was impenetrable. “Basic social change involves a vast deal of physical violence,” he wrote. “The pacifist is not a man who is afraid of violence nor in a sense opposed to it because often social change cannot be made except under situations where violence is to a degree inevitable. The pacifist is opposed to using violence, but he must be prepared to accept it as a part of social change.” 

An energetic and articulate speaker, Rustin led workshops on racism and nonviolent civil disobedience throughout the United States and around the world. Charismatic, funny, and engaging, he inspired and energized people. But because of his sexual orientation and the times in which he lived, he was an outsider, forced to spend much of his life in the shadows. When in 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge in Pasadena, California, the FOR fired him and much of the civil rights community shunned him.

But Rustin’s skills and experiences were too valuable to ignore. First introduced to King in February 1956, he soon became a valued advisor to the movement’s most important leader. King asked for Rustin’s behind-the-scenes help with the Montgomery bus boycott, teaching non-violent tactics and maintaining morale. King realized that Rustin brought with him not only years of experience with nonviolent protest, but also, as described in Lost Prophet, “years of serious meditation about how the philosophy, strategy, and tactics of nonviolence were of a piece and how together they might fashion a transformative revolutionary movement. . . . From the start, Rustin communicated to King not only the efficacy and moral value of nonviolence, but the special responsibility of leaders to model it fully.”

In the years to come, Rustin’s counsel helped King emerge as a national leader. Rustin introduced King to labor leaders and financial supporters; he drafted speeches and articles for King and edited King’s own writing. He linked King with other social justice organizations, such as CORE and the AFSC. He and King together formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). And although King is rightly credited with putting nonviolent civil disobedience on the map, it was Rustin who helped mold King into a principled believer and proponent of the tactics employed by Gandhi.

In 1963, when the leaders of various civil rights organizations agreed to stage a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, they turned to Rustin to put it all together. Although marches on Washington have since become fairly commonplace, carefully scripted events with few surprises, this was not so in 1963. Then the idea was untested and full of risk. In just eight short weeks, Rustin built the organization out of nothing. As described by D’Emilio in Lost Prophet:
He had to assemble a staff and shape them into a team able to perform under intense pressure. He had to craft a coalition that would hang together despite organizational competition, personal animosities, and often antagonistic politics. He had to maneuver through the mine field of an opposition that ranged from liberals who were counseling moderation to segregationists out to sabotage the event.
The Kennedy administration quietly pressured Rustin and others to cancel the march, fearing riots and embarrassment. Two weeks before the scheduled march, Senator Strom Thurmond, the staunchly conservative segregationist from South Carolina, from the Senate floor publicly labelled Rustin a Communist and a “sexual pervert” and entered the police file of Rustin’s 1953 morals charge into the Congressional Record, all in an attempt to discredit the march and the movement. 

In the end, the March on Washington was a peaceful, orderly day of speeches, songs, and demonstrations. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech stands as one of the greatest pieces of oratory in American history, and the march influenced the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted.

Rustin’s influence on King remained fairly consistent over the years. Although there were periods of estrangement due to concerns over Rustin’s sexuality, Rustin encouraged King to think beyond the demise of Jim Crow toward a more expansive movement that linked justice for black Americans to economic and social justice for all Americans. By 1965, Rustin had embraced coalition building and the political process as the most effective means to advance the causes of economic justice and human rights. After all, what good are voting rights if you have no one to vote for? What good is your right to sit at an integrated lunch counter if you cannot afford to buy a meal?

In later years, Rustin’s pacifism would be challenged by a growing chorus of more militant blacks, who chanted “Black Power” and advocated racial separatism. But Rustin never wavered in his commitment to non-violence and integration. He stood his ground in public debates with Malcolm X in the early 1960s and later, Stokely Carmichael, when Carmichael disavowed nonviolence as an effective tool of social protest.

Rustin’s commitment to human rights was universal. Strongly allied with the Jewish community, he fought anti-Semitism with the same intensity as he fought racism. He was a strong advocate for Israel and the plight of Soviet Jewry. In his later years, he publicly advocated the rights of gays and lesbians. “[P]rejudice is of a single bit,” he said. “There are great numbers of people who will accept all kinds of people: blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but who won’t accept [gays]. That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights.”

I was a 28 year-old lawyer when Bayard Rustin died in 1987. Looking back, I am saddened that I knew so little about Rustin during his lifetime. His is a uniquely American story that deserves a special mention in the history books. His life exemplifies Margaret Mead’s belief that committed and passionate human beings can indeed change the world.

Rustin’s legacy is quiet now, but not entirely forgotten. His spirit lives on whenever America progresses towards racial equality, economic justice, gay rights, and the quest for peace. During his lifetime, Rustin often said to those who would listen that God does not require us to “achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.” We could still use a little of Bayard Rustin’s energy and passion today. 


  1. Great post, Mark. I am sorry to say that before reading this, I knew absolutely nothing about Rustin. Thanks for teaching me something this morning.

  2. Ken - Thanks for the comment. That is precisely why I felt compelled to write about him. He played an instrumental role in the cause of civil and human rights in the 20th century, and yet is largely overlooked in the history books. Although I did not mention it in my essay, a really good documentary of Rustin is called "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin" by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates. It came out in 2009. If you get the chance, it is worth watching.

  3. Mark,

    Fantastic first paragraph! I’ve read it several times and it is just terrific; a powerful gem that stands on its own and says so much.

    The rest is an interesting biographical sketch (with just a few bits of silly) that highlights what I’ve always believed; that to know the whole truth, go to either the guy in the shadows or the guy that has been horribly maligned. Want to know the truth about the O.J. slaughter fest? Read Mark Fuhrman’s book. The truth of the Rodney King arrest? Read Stacey Koon’s book (and then Robert Deitz’s). Iran Contra: Ollie. Watergate: G. Gordon. And now it occurs to me that these examples, bogeymen for liberals, might not be the best examples, but, then again, Rustin was demonized by both sides for a variety of reasons, so maybe not too far from the mark after all.

    And briefly the silly parts (you were dying to know, admit it):

    “A black man in a predominantly white society; a gay man in a homophobic society; a pacifist in a militaristic society; an activist in a passive and apathetic society.”

    Give you the first one; hard to argue with math, but “homophobic” is an unfair word for those with moral beliefs against certain “behaviors.” If there’s one thing this country is not, it is “militaristic.” Time and time again this country has won wars against monsters only to “de-militarize” just in time to be caught with our pants down when, low and behold, another evil bastard takes center stage. I would hardly refer to this country as being “passive and apathetic”; there is always, without fail, some group bitching about something.

    “I was not yet nine years old when King was assassinated in 1968. Too young to fully comprehend the historic impact of his loss, I knew even then that the United States would never be the same again. I mourn still for America.”

    Brutal, as brutal as the country losing “its soul” after a previous assassination (but only certain assassinations are soul killers). Contrary to Hollywood’s oldest cliche, there are no indispensable men. There is always someone that will pick up the flag and carry on. There is no need for melodrama, not in a country founded on the historically absurd notion that leaders serve at the pleasure of the people. Regime change through murder often works in much of the world but not here for that very reason. Four presidents have been assassinated and the country’s soul remains intact. Had Schrank succeeded, or Zangara, or Fromme or Hinckley, the country would have gone on, in all likelihood stronger and better. It’s in our DNA.

    “Not yet the bogeyman it would become after the Second World War, the CPUSA was then full of idealistic, committed Americans fighting racism, inequality, and injustice. This was before McCarthyism and the Cold War, when Communism provided an idealistic, if misguided “utopian” alternative to the perceived failures of capitalism during the Great Depression.”

    Godawful way to describe the greatest evil that this world has ever known. And its evil nature was known before Joe spoke the truth.

    As far as Rustin’s jail time for not serving, it was well deserved and a necessary measure to weed out cowards who would rather someone else go in their place. He came home in one piece and we can only hope the guy who took his spot did too. Of course it does seem odd that this pacifist, who would not take up arms in defense of his country, had no problem supporting Africans who did just that against Cuban and Russian communists.

    And finally it should be noted that pacifism as a tactic only works in inherently good societies. Try it in a Nazi Germany or a Communist Russia and the results will be a whole lot of dead, unarmed pacifists.

    Good job,

    Rich R.

  4. Welcome back. I missed your insights.

  5. Thanks for the comments Rich and GG.

    Rich – I do not believe describing the United States as a “homophobic society” during the times in which Rustin lived is inaccurate. Until only very recently, gays and lesbians faced discrimination in almost every aspect of life and lived with the fear of imprisonment for merely engaging in consensual relations with other adults. For much of his lifetime, prejudice and bigotry against blacks was probably only exceeded by prejudice against gays – against whom even blacks were often prejudiced. For years the mental health community labeled homosexuality a “mental illness,” a diagnosis that has since been completely repudiated. That Rustin could be called a “pervert” on the floor of the United States Senate in 1963; that being gay could easily get you beaten to death; and that the mere status of being “homosexual” could, until very recently, get you court martialed by the U.S. military, is further testament that the country was, during Rustin’s lifetime, a homophobic society. It has been very clear for sometime now that one’s sexual orientation is no different than one’s skin color. If you disagree, ask yourself: (1) when did you choose to be white? (2) when did you choose to be straight?

    As for the US being a militaristic society, it is a reasonable conclusion given the excessive levels of U.S. defense spending since WWII (more than most every other nation on earth combined), our massive buildups of nuclear arms, and the various acts of foreign aggression we have engaged in since then. The US military budget in 2011 was $718,000,000,000 (not including the $127,000,000,000 for veterans affairs). I am only using the term, however, in the descriptive sense, not judgmentally. Unlike Rustin, I am not a pacifist and believe that the use of force in certain contexts is more than justified in defending a nation (and defending other friendly nations). I also believe in maintaining a strong military (any disagreement here is a matter of degree and priorities). But Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, support of covert coups in several nations, Iraq, etc. – these are actions of a society that emphasizes use of military force over alternatives (again, I am not trying to debate you on the merits of any of these conflicts – only justifying the descriptive use of “militaristic” in an essay on the radical pacifist Bayard Rustin).

    As for passive and apathetic, we are a country that often sees voter participation dip below 50% and a majority of Americans cannot even name their Congressional representative. There are, of course, a significant minority of people on both the left and right who are very engaged, but for much of our history, a large number of Americans simply did not care about blacks being deprived of their rights, or gays being discriminated against, etc.

    Comparing the relatively small group of Americans who, though misguided, were attracted to Communism in the 1930s when it was the only party actually addressing segregation, racism, and injustice in a meaningful way (well before Stalin’s purges were known) to the “greatest evil that this world has ever known” is a bit of hyperbole. I understand your point, but….

    Finally, to call Rustin a “coward” for refusing to violate his conscience during WWII is a poor use of that term. As his life attests, Rustin was anything but a coward. He willingly served his time in prison as a form of protest; as a Quaker, he could have done alternative service in a civilian camp in lieu of military service, but he chose not to, as he believed the camps were a farce. It is not a course of action I would have chosen – I lost one uncle in the war (shot down over Austria) and a second one served on the front lines in Japan, and I have always believed that US military intervention in WWII was a no-brainer, but to call Rustin a coward is intellectual laziness. He at least backed up his principles and accepted the consequences.

    But thanks for the comments and food for thought.

  6. Mark,

    Point well taken on the homophobia comment. I agree with almost all of it, with the caveat that just because you were born a certain way doesn’t mean that your “actions” are moral. We can both agree that even if you were born with a sexual attraction to children, you should still refrain from acting on those impulses.

    As for a passive and apathetic America, I must point out that when Americans do get engaged, as with the TEA Party, their engagement is derided and they are called nasty names. No one on the Left (you included) applauds them for their passion, even if they disagree with their philosophy. As far as voting, you got me there.

    Regarding my “coward” comments, I was not calling Ruskin a coward, simply stating that since we can’t determine pacifistic sincerity that we must treat all the same. It matters not whether he was a coward or a pacifist; what matters is that a price is paid. For a pacifist the jail time is simply the cost he pays for his convictions. For the coward the jail time allows for ample thought for the consequence of his actions and that someone else may have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

    Rich R.