Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, W.E.B. DuBois – these are the names that come to mind when thinking about the American Civil Rights Movement. But there is one name that has faded into the background and been pushed aside. Bayard Rustin was the man behind the scenes, the man who influenced the tone of the entire movement and was a champion for all people.
Born into a middle class family in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was raised by his grandparents and was led to believe that his mother was actually his sister. His family life had a heavy impact on his personal views on activism and the need to speak out. Rustin was raised in the Quaker church and was heavily influenced by the beliefs of nonviolence and pacifism. His grandmother was also heavily involved in the NAACP, which resulted in leaders like W.E.B DuBois being a constant presence in the family home.
Rustin began his career in activism right after high school, becoming involved in activist groups in college when the Scottsboro Boys case made headlines. While at college, he also joined the Young Communist League, because of the party’s focus on civil rights. He did two short stints at separate universities but never completed a degree.
“We need in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers”
After he left college, Rustin threw himself into the world of activism. He took up interest in many causes but focused mainly on human rights. At this point in Rustin’s life, World War II had broken out. In 1941 Rustin helped to organize the first March on Washington, to end military segregation. It was during this time that Rustin formed a lifelong friendship with A. Philip Randolph, a leader in Civil Rights, American Labor Union, and Socialist Party. Rustin went on to help form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. CORE was the largest and most pivotal Civil Rights organizations for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. CORE played a major role in many key events of the movement such as, Freedom Rides, Boycott of Chicago Public Schools, the March on Washington, and Freedom Summer.
During this time, the interstate bus system was still segregated and Rustin took up the cause. He boarded a bus out of Louisville by himself, sat in the second row, and headed towards Nashville. Bus drivers asked him to move but Rustin refused. The bus was stopped outside of Nashville and Rustin was beaten by the police and arrested for the first time.
In 1943, Bayard Rustin served his longest sentence. The US had entered the war and began drafting men into the army. As a Quaker who believed in nonviolence, Rustin refused. He was given the option to serve the war effort by enlisting as a noncombatant or providing labor at a civilian work camp. Rustin refused all options and was arrested. He served 3 years at a segregated federal penitentiary. While incarcerated, Rustin did not end his activism. Through nonviolent action and peaceful protest, Rustin was able to desegregate the prison’s dining facility.
Bayard Rustin did not let his incarceration slow him down. After his release, Rustin set about organizing the Journey of Reconciliation, which tested the Supreme Court’s ban on racial discrimination during interstate travel. The journey consisted of fourteen men, equally split in race, who traveled by bus through the south. Throughout the protest, the participants were consistently arrested, the most severe of which happened in North Carolina, where all the jailed members of the protest served on a chain gang. The NAACP opposed this protest, fearing that this type of direct action would provoke a violent response and feeling that nonviolence was too meek for the cause.
While in prison, Rustin had organized a Free India Committee for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Rustin had been associated with FOR because it was a pacifist organization. Rustin’s interest in India’s protest against British rule led to many arrests for protesting on behalf of India in the United States. He also had studied in depth the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, which added to his convictions on nonviolent action. As one of the leaders of the US pacifist movement, Rustin traveled to India in 1948 to learn the techniques of nonviolent civil resistance from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. Gandhi himself had been assassinated the year prior but still continued to influence Rustin’s activism techniques and personal philosophy.
When he returned to the US in 1953, Bayard Rustin, once again, found himself in legal trouble, however, this time for something other than his protests. Arrested for “homosexual activity”, he served 60 days in jail for the charge. This was the first time that Rustin’s sexuality became the main focus of his troubles. Rustin was openly gay but had never suffered any backlash. This incident provided more reason to oppose him as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Due to the negative responses towards him, Rustin faded to the background of the movement “for the greater good”.
Involvement with Martin Luther King Jr.
Rustin once again took a leading role in activism in 1956 when he became an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., who asked for his help with the public transportation boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Rustin imparted the Gandhian techniques of nonviolence and pacifism to Martin Luther King Jr., who previously had not decided his views on nonviolence:
“I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King’s view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott began. In other words, Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns.”
Rustin’s partnership with Marin Luther King Jr. continued on with the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Program. Many civil rights leaders took issue with Rustin because of his previous affiliation with the Communist party and his sexual orientation. Once again Rustin faded into the background for the cause but he would not stay there for long.In 1963 Bayard Rustin organized perhaps the most famous event in the Civil Rights Movement – the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He trained bus drivers, off duty police officers, and others involved in the march in the tactics of nonviolence. The NAACP did not want Rustin to receive any credit for planning the march but nevertheless, Rustin’s involvement became widely known, appearing on the cover of Life magazine as the leader of the protest. Despite opposition to Rustin’s involvement, he was a strong presence at the march, coordinating marchers and even speaking to the crowd.
After the March on Washington, Rustin organized the New York City Public Schools Boycott. This was the last major event that he would organize for the Civil Rights Movement. As a result of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the movement drifted away from the pacifist ideals.
The New Civil Rights Movement
Rustin did not end his activism at the Civil Rights Movement. He went on to promote the Labor Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam protests. Perhaps the biggest cause Rustin championed after Civil Rights was gay rights. He testified in favor of a gay rights bill in New York in 1986. Rustin believed that the gay rights movement was the new civil rights movement:
” 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.”
He would advocate for gay rights and other human rights until his death in 1987 during a humanitarian mission in Haiti.
Rustin lived a life dedicated to improving conditions for all people. At the end of his life he possessed a 10,000 page FBI profile and 27 arrests. Why, then, is Bayard Rustin’s name lost among his accomplishments? Did his sexuality and personal beliefs outweigh his contributions? One thing is clear, Bayard Rustin was content to not have the spotlight for the success of the causes he so believed in.