Bayard Rustin

By: Victoria Yates

Bayard Taylor Rustin was born on the 17th of March, 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania to Florence Rustin and Archie Hopkins. However, as he was born out of wedlock, his maternal grandparents Julia and Janifer raised him as part of their large family. His grandmother was a Quaker, a religion she impressed upon her children and Bayard despite attending her husband’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Quaker principles of equality, nonviolence, and the importance of love and respect in your relations with others are clearly visible in Rustin’s ideals so strongly championed when older. Julia was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people or NAACP, another influence on Rustin’s later work.

At school Rustin was talented academically as well as in sports. While at high school his talent as a singer also emerged, proving himself to have an impressive tenor voice. In his younger years he was also keenly involved in fighting discriminatory Jim Crow laws. He attended Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College, and the City College of New York without ever finishing his B.A, working odd jobs and singing to make the tuition, and gaining a musical scholarship at Wilberforce and Cheyney State.

After completing an activist training program with the American Friends Service he moved to New York in 1937, beginning his life long activism in earnest. It was at this point, when he was at the City College of New York, that he became involved with the Young Communist League, working as a Youth organizer. In 1941, he became disillusioned with the communist cause after a reversal of their stance on racial injustices following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

He began working instead with anti-communist Socialists including A. Philip Randolph, at the time leading the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Along with other key figures of the time, a march on Washington was planned in 1941 to protest racial discrimination within the armed forces. However, it was cancelled after President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order banning discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus. Rustin became the Race Relations Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), touring the country and holding conferences intending to facilitate communication and understanding amongst racial groups. In 1942 he also worked with the FOR in California in their fight to protect the property of Japanese-Americans who had been placed in internment camps.

As a member of the Quaker Church, he was exempt from the draft with the offer of performing a Civil Service alternative. Faced with the knowledge that other pacifists who weren’t Quakers were being imprisoned for their refusal to serve, Rustin declined to serve the alternative service and was sentenced to three years in prison. His term at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary began in 1944 and although he faced a great deal of institutionalized racism from many of the guards and inmates, Rustin set up protests against segregated eating areas.

On his release in 1947 Rustin regained his involvement with the FOR, planning and joining a journey across four southern states that tested the application of the recent Supreme Court ruling that discrimination in seating in interstate transportation was illegal. This was the first “freedom ride” and was termed the Journey of Reconciliation. Along the way those involved were beaten, fined, and arrested.

While incarcerated, Rustin had also helped organize the FOR’s Free India Committee which sought to support the move for India’s independence from British control. From around 1948 to 1952 Rustin traveled around India and parts of Africa, learning nonviolent means of protests from individuals such as Gandhi who he studied during his travels. During this time Rustin was frequently arrested by British officials for his nonviolent protests to their rule. On his travels Rustin talked with Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister of Ghana, and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria who were both involved in their countries’ fight for independence.

Rustin was a relatively open gay man for the time, and this resulted in his experiencing not only racial discrimination but also discrimination on the basis of his sexual orientation. In 1953 he was arrested on a ‘morals charge’. It was the first instance that his homosexuality had come to public attention, and it came at a time when homosexual behavior was illegal in all states. Following his arrest, he lost his position with the FOR. He instead began what would become a twelve-year stint as executive secretary of the War Resisters League, as well as writing on pacifist strategy for several publications, including The Progressive.  

In 1956 he was granted temporary leave from his post to go and help Martin Luther King Jr. in the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His knowledge of nonviolent theory and tactics eventually proved invaluable to the cause. With King he was actively involved in the organization of the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom staged in 1957, and the National Youth Marches for Integrated Schools (1958 and 1959). Rustin was also the Deputy Director and chief organizer of the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” which served as the platform for the iconic “I have a dream” speech. It was an immense leadership task to devise and coordinate the gathering of at least a quarter of a million participants.

Following his involvement, Senator Strom Thurmond attacked him on grounds of both his communist past and his homosexuality, producing a photo of him speaking with King while he was bathing, insinuating a sexual relationship was occurring. Both denied the claims and King remained supportive of Rustin. But the unease felt by others in the civil rights movement was evident in the NAACP Chairman’s attempts to prevent Rustin getting any credit for his role in planning the march.

Rustin’s focus shifted in the mid-60s after the 1964 Civil Rights Act to focus more on the inclusion and mobilization of minorities in industry. In 1964 He helped found the A. Philip Randolph Institute (named for his mentor), which was active in voter registration drives and other programs aimed at greater involvement of the black community in the labor movement. He personally participated in many strikes and was a strong supporter of organized-labor. He was also involved in the formation of the Recruitment and Training program which successfully increased minority involvement in the building and construction industry.

Rustin was firmly against the ‘identity politics’ of the Black Power movement and the affirmative action programs being proposed at the time. This made him unpopular with Black Power exponents and many of his fellow African-Americans. It meant Rustin was largely isolated. His controversial politics further caused difficulties when he continued to support Israel; firmly believing that in the wake of the Holocaust, the Jewish people needed their own state. Although believing that injustices had been done to the Palestinian people, he felt the Israeli government had been spurred to some of its actions by Middle East attempts to destroy their state.

In the 1970s and 80s, Rustin worked with the International Rescue Committee. He traveled to secure food, aid, medical care, and education, largely in Southeast Asia. Rustin was involved in the 1980 International March for Survival that took place on the Thai-Cambodian border and he helped form the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Refugees in 1982. Rustin worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House which saw him visiting countries such as Chile, Grenada, Poland, and Zimbabwe to oversee elections.

Throughout this work he maintained his staunch belief in the value and necessity of democracy. He also never forget his fight against sexual-orientation discrimination, and around this time he testified on behalf of the New York State’s Gay Rights Bill – including giving a speech entitled “The New Niggers are Gays” in which he asserted that Gays were now the “litmus paper or the barometer of social change” as Blacks now had a law-affirmed standing in American Society while Gays remained “the most vulnerable group”.

On a trip to Haiti in 1987, where he was studying the prospects for democratic elections, Rustin began to feel unwell. He was initially misdiagnosed as having intestinal parasites but was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital on August 21st 1987 where he was diagnosed with a perforated appendix. He died three days later from cardiac arrest.

Rustin remains an under-appreciated force in the civil rights movement, as well for the universal fight for human rights. He tirelessly worked to correct what he saw to be society’s wrongs throughout his life, never denouncing his faith in nonviolence and democracy. He was truly a values-driven leader whose story, whilst under-appreciated by many, is both remarkable and inspiring.