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.