Bayard Taylor Rustin (b. 3/17/1912) was raised by his maternal grandmother in Pennsylvania, a Quaker by inclination, although nominally with the AME Church, and a charter member of the NAACP (in 1910). He adopted those Quaker principles--the equality of all human beings before God, the vital need for nonviolence, and the importance of dealing with everyone with love and respect. 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 behind-the-scenes role never garnered Rustin the public acclaim he deserved.
Rustin's career as political activist began in high school when he was arrested for refusing to sit in the balcony of the local moviehouse, dubbed Nigger Heaven. As offensive lineman on the football team, he instigated a revolt among his black teammates to their Jim Crow accommodations. He led a group of classmates in acts of defiance to such practices in restaurants, soda fountains, movie houses, department stores, and the YMCA. Graduating with honors in 1932, Rustin was class valedictorian and received a prize for excellence in public speaking.
In 1937, his permanent residence became New York City and enrolled in the City College of New York, , while singing in local clubs with African American folk artists Josh White and Huddie Ledbetter. At this time, Rustin began to organize for the Young Communist League of City College as their position on racial injustice appealed to him, although he later became disillusioned 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 sought out A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the leading articulator of the rights of Afro-Americans. Rustin led the youth wing on 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 march caused a breach between them and Rustin transferred his organizing efforts to the peace movement.
A member of one of the government-recognized peace churches (the Fifteenth Street Meeting), he was entitled to do alternative service rather than serve in the armed services. Rustin found himself unable to accept this, given that many young men not members of recognized peace churches received 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 where he set about to resist pervasive segregation in U.S. prisons. Rustin faced frequent cruelty with courage and nonviolent resistance.
After release from prison, Rustin became involved 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 hard labor on a chain gang, where he met with the expected racist taunts and tortures.
Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin traveled to India and then to Africa under the aegis of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, exploring the nonviolent dimensions of Gandhi. Most of FOR's leaders were disciples of Mahatma Gandhi. With James Farmer as its race relations secretary and Rustin as field secretary, FOR was the progenitor of the Congress of Racial Equality. Founded in 1940 with Rustin as its first field secretary. CORE combined the racial militancy of Randolph with the tactics of the pacifist movement, centered around nonviolent direct action, for challenging Jim Crow in the South. Although CORE's experiments with sit-ins and boycotts were minimally effective in the 1940s, they constituted a political legacy that was readily adopted by the evolving civil rights movement in the 1950s. Then he worked for several years in a campaign against America's development of nuclear weapons and its programs for war preparedness. Soon after the abortive Journey of Reconciliation he traveled to Paris and Moscow with David Dellinger and other pacifists. In Paris he learned of emerging anticolonial struggles in Africa.
In 1953 Rustin was arrested for public indecency in Pasadena, California. 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. Gay rights became a part of his belief in the inherent dignity of all oppressed people. As a consequence of his arrest, Rustin was to lose his position on the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Rustin then began a twelve-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 titled Speak Truth to Power.
When Rosa Parks's act of courage in December, 1955 precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott which would catapult Martin Luther King into a leadership position, Rustin was summoned to Montgomery the following February. In 1956 Rustin was approached by Lillian Smith, the Southern author of 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.
At 44 he was a seasoned organizer; King, at 27, was a neophyte who by sheer accident was drawn into the swirling vortex of black revolt. King had previous academic exposure to Gandhi, but it was Rustin who prevailed on King to dispense with armed guards and to embrace nonviolent action as the trademark of the budding movement. It was also Rustin who forged links to radicals in the North. In April 1956 Liberation carried King's first piece of political journalism, and Rustin and the War Resisters League mobilized leading pacifists and radicals into a Committee for Nonviolent Integration which funneled aid to King. Rustin helped to organize yet another group, In Friendship, which sponsored a rally at Madison Square Garden that raised some $20,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association. There was always nervousness among King's advisors about Rustin's Communist past and his homosexuality, but his organizing skills and political savvy proved indispensable.
It would be difficult to exaggerate Rustin's contribution as the Montgomery boycott evolved into a broad strategy for protest. Rustin "conceived and charted" the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, along with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison. This was to serve as the organizational mechanism for King's ascent to national prominence. Over the next decade Rustin remained a close advisor to King, especially during moments of crisis. Rustin was the chief organizer of 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.
Held at the Lincoln memorial on the third anniversary of the Brown decision, the Pilgrimage drew some 30,000 participants from labor, student, religious, and civil rights organizations. This was King's first major protest event outside the South, and his oratorical gifts captured the attention of commentators both inside and outside the movement. Rustin also had a hand in drafting King's first book, Stride Toward Freedom, which reached a national audience with the riveting story of the Montgomery boycott. In 1958 Rustin organized yet another mass demonstration in Washington -- the Youth March for Integrated Schools. These were the feats of creative organizing through which the civil rights movement grew from a regional protest against Jim Crow to a national movement for racial justice.
Rustin was "a leading member of the radical jet set," flying off to conferences in Europe, India, and Africa. In late 1959 Rustin was abroad protesting France's first nuclear test in the Sahara, and was absent from the planning for the 1960 national conventions, much to the ire of Randolph. According to Anderson, "Rustin therefore found himself in the middle of a tug-of-war between the two political causes to which he was equally committed, pacifism and black protest activism."
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. King's celebrated I-have-a-dream oration has been embraced precisely because it vented no anger, cast no aspersions, but on the contrary, invoked America's ideals and substituted utopian reverie for political action. 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. While the March had all of the earmarks of protest, it represented the ascendancy of a new brand of coalition politics, the antithesis of the politics of confrontation that were at the core of the black protest movement.
By 1965 Rustin felt 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 failed was due to the Vietnam war, which diverted the efforts into antiwar activism. 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.
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 life. After his visit, Rustin became ill. His symptoms were initially misdiagnosed as intestinal parasites and on August 21, 1987, Rustin was diagnosed with a perforated appendix. He died of cardiac arrest on August 24, 1987.
Although Bayard Rustin lived in the shadow of more charismatic civil rights leaders, he was 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. Throughout his life, Rustin's Quakerism was a unifying force in his life. His efforts toward coalition politics, both within the labor movement and in Democratic Party politics, was to overtake his personal beliefs when he supported the Administration's line on Vietnam. In "An Open Letter to Bayard Rustin," Staughton Lynd had this objection:
"Why, Bayard? You must know in your heart that your position betrays your essential moralism over the years. The lesson of your apostasy on Vietnam appears to be that the gains for American Negroes you advise them to seek through coalition within the Democratic Party come only at a price. . . . The price is to make our brothers in Vietnam a burnt offering on the altar of political expediency."[Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen: A Biography (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), pp. 295-96]
This from a man who chose prison over the Civilian Public Service; who had been a leading crusader for nonviolence in international affairs. There is paradox and tragedy that in his pursuit of coalition politics, The civil libertarian (although hardly an economic libertarian) Rustin betrayed the principles and the movement that he had done so much to advance. Once Rustin committed himself to the false god of coalition politics, all of his lifelong principles went asunder. There is also a lesson to be drawn from Rustin's political fall: to resist the blandishments of power during those rare moments of radical ascendancy.