Quick. Name a hero, an architect, a legend of the human rights movement. Here’s a hint. He organized the 1963 March on Washington. Bayard Rustin may not instantly come to mind. At The Afro News, forward-thinking publisher, Honore Gbedze and writer, Helena Kaufman knew differently.
This post on Bayard Rustin is a reprint from May 1, 2012. Written by Helena Kaufman and published in The Afro News, Vancouver, Canada. Rustin’s energetic and unique legend of human rights activism had been long ignored. Why? He should have been recognized and not quietly overshadowed by the great names of his time that most media, institutions, and schools celebrate.
Now on the world stage through a film by Director George C. Wolfe and Executive Producers Michelle and Barak Obama, Bayard Rustin’s stellar contributions and daring are brought to life by actor, Colman Domingo.
A man possessed in abundance of leadership” is just one of the many accurate accolades bestowed on Bayard Rustin. For more than 50 years, Bayard Rustin was a strategist and activist in the struggle for human rights and economic and social justice
He helped fuel great changes in both the attitudes and the laws of a generation and finally in 2012 exhibits, books and documentaries are bringing his personal story and his impact to light.
Rustin’s life was complex and inspiring. Anyone delving into it will find it endlessly fascinating. Even the most casual online search will yield so many individual accomplishments that you will wonder how it was humanly possible to do all that he did. (Alert: expert sources noted that while Wikipedia’s detailed entries on him are mostly correct, some glaring factual errors must be updated see our resource list below for research purposes.)
Rustin was a lead architect of the civil rights movement. He devoted his life to correcting social and economic oppression and to creating a better foundation for all people to thrive.
Rustin was a mentor and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. Both King’s and Rustin’s early training for national speeches and civil rights demonstrations began in Chicago. It served as the important preparatory ground for grassroots activism and community building for both men. The Chicago History Museum presented a special display and was only one location that kicked off this celebratory year of revelation about this amazing individual.
The Afro News (TAN) was recently invited to an opportunity to (re) learn and then share information about Rustin at an exceptional multi-Canadian city video conference with community leaders, academics, and researchers. The event was coordinated for Black History Month and hosted by the US Consulate in Vancouver.
Margaret Chisholm, a lecturer in legal research and public services and librarian at the Yale University Law Library for the past 30 years, gave an extraordinarily informed and impassioned presentation. Ms Chisholm generously agreed to an exclusive interview to refresh the information gathered by TAN about this gentle giant of America’s history.
Rustin was a bona fide pacifist and a devoted practitioner and teacher of civil disobedience and non-violence. He was also a writer; political organizer; political theoretician; socialist; anti-communist; political strategist and professional singer.
Rustin’s writing is so incredibly diverse, high quality and prolific that Chisholm delved deeper as a result of her research for three Reading Room exhibits she developed at the Yale Library. The focus of the most recent one was on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1960. The enormity of Rustin’s essential presence and role, however, led to much more research.
A useful reading, viewing, and listening list of resources generously provided by Chisholm follows. The man and his accomplishments are larger than life and certainly also the space possible in this TAN issue. Readers can find more and richer details about Rustin’s involvement in music, politics, religious and spiritual matters, civil rights and global activism, pacifism, and education.
Select highlights you may find interesting:
In 1912, baby Bayard Rustin was born to his 17-year-old mother. Within 10 days she had run away from their West Chester, Pennsylvania, home and left him in the care of his grandparents and their six other children.
Bayard’s grandmother Julia was the one who shaped Rustin’s life until the end of his days. He credited her for instilling the best of what he had to share with the world. She was a Quaker, although she attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church with her husband. (Find more on Julia Rustin in TAN’s May issue)
True to his first name taken after a poet in the region, Rustin did indeed grow to have great interests in the arts and letters and became an animated and engaging writer who left a superb legacy. “His writing and materials as well as his existence help us make greater sense of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Chisholm.
As a youth, Rustin excelled as a student, musician, and even athlete. He also understood early on that he was a homosexual. He was open about it from the start and it proved to both encourage his humanist views and to be a controversial challenge in those times. It was only in his last decade, encouraged by his last and long-term life partner, Walter Naegle, that Rustin dedicated efforts to improve gay rights and to advocate for the LGBT community. (Naegle is the executor and archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate.)
His social activism began in his early years and pacifism was always, without fail, his response to all incidents.
An early experience of racism was the segregation that would not allow him to celebrate inside the same soda shop with his teammates after a win. It was the first time he was removed by police from a location. It would not be the last and jail time later formed a kind of incubator for much of his writing and development.
“College life was complicated for Rustin,” says Chisholm. “It seems like he messed up there and was a star in high school, where he was very clear about his identity and his passions. He even picketed places himself. He was off the scale in high school. It was a precursor to what he was capable of in his extraordinary day-to-day life.
Rustin began with a scholarship at Wilberforce and lost it for organizing against the poor quality of the food. Then the president of Cheyney State College, Leslie Pinckney Hill, recruited Rustin to Cheyney PA on a music scholarship to sing. At Cheyney, Rustin studied, in part, in tutorial settings with Hill who was African American and had studied and graduated at Harvard with a master’s degree (blackpast1880-1960). Pinckney Hill, however, asked Rustin to leave Cheyney, on account of a homosexual incident.
While he never received his B.A., Rustin attended Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College, and the City College of New York. He earned money for tuition by working at odd jobs and singing with Josh White’s Carolinians as a tenor vocalist. This affiliation widened his social and intellectual contacts, in particular in Greenwich Village.
His move to New York in 1937 began his social and political activism and life as a Quaker in earnest. He completed an activist training program of the American Friends Service Committee. When City College hired him as a youth organizer for the Young Communist League, he worked on the issue of racial segregation and advocated an anti-war position. He stayed on till 1941 when the League’s focus changed due to the war in Europe and he became disillusioned for life in the party.
This is when; at age 26 he joined the 15th Street Meeting House and solidified his commitment. He also added to his interests and affiliations. Rustin gained great administrative experience. These strengths helped him manage his work well, especially on the road and thereafter with any organization he worked for to help organize them internally and to boost their effectiveness externally too. It was in harmony with the experience of his upbringing which was to always learn and teach. The book, Interracial Primer came out of this time.
A constant for Rustin was lifelong learning and perpetual teaching. The secrets to his success lay in good measure with his Quaker outlook and will be expanded in an upcoming TAN article on his grandmother. Of the positive experiences from his childhood that Rustin extended to youth was his laser insight into their very best parts.
“He had the ability to very quickly see young people and their attributes clearly. He spoke directly to their best parts and allowed youth to shine based on their best selves,” says Chisholm based on the anecdotes she has read and the letters she has researched.
“Bayard Rustin also gave responsibility to young people which was not the usual pattern with activists, especially leaders.”
One of his mentors was A. Philip Randolph. Rustin worked with Randolph when the latter was president of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the premier black trade union. At the same time, Rustin began his long association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). As their Race Relations Secretary, Rustin was able to facilitate communication and understanding among racial groups. He toured the country and held Race Relations Institutes.
He was active in Randolph’s March on Washington Movement and became the first field secretary of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
In 1942, the FOR and the American Friends Service Committee dispatched him to California to help protect the property of Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps. It was just one example of Rustin’s ever-expanding lens of empathy and action for humanity.
Refusing the draft at home and accepting challenges around the globe
Refusal to register for the draft led Rustin to also decline alternative service in one of the Civilian Public Service camps set up for Quakers and other religious pacifists. He served three years in federal penitentiary as of 1943, as his way of protesting the war.
By 1947, he helped plan the first “Freedom Ride” in the South, under the auspices of the FOR and CORE.
It challenged the Jim Crow practices that had been made illegal by a 1946 Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination in interstate travel. This Journey of Reconciliation as it was known had riders engaged in direct protest. They intentionally violated the segregated seating setups on Southern buses and trains. They risked and sustained beatings arrests and fines.
As a result, Rustin served 22 days of a 30-day sentence on a chain gang in North Carolina. Anytime Rustin was jailed his pacifist approach altered the lives of inmates he was incarcerated with improving their education and living conditions. He infused trust and ethics even among the convicted, whether on entering jail they were innocent or not.
On his early release for good behaviour he wrote an account that was serialized in The New York Post. It led to an investigation that contributed to the abolition of chain gangs in North Carolina. “The Journey” served as a template for the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s.
The promotion of democracy extended to the support of human rights struggles worldwide.
In 1945 he championed India’s fight for independence from Great Britain and organized the FOR’s Free India Committee. He was a studious follower of Mahatma Gandhi from visits to India and later shared his methods for civil disobedience with Martin Luther King Jr. for whom he in turn became a mentor.
He also protested Britain’s colonial rule in Africa. In the early 1950s, he consulted with leaders of their countries’ independence movements – Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria.
Back in the USA, he helped organize the Committee to Support South African Resistance in 1951. It became the American Committee on Africa.
By 1983, together with two colleagues, Rustin went on a fact-finding visit to South Africa. They produced a report, South Africa: Is Peaceful Change Possible? Ultimately it led to raising American awareness through the creation of Project South Africa, and increased support of groups within South Africa working for democracy through peaceful means.
Even at the most poignant historic moments and powerful activity with important groups, Bayard Rustin’s life and work were affected by anti-gay prejudice as well as racial discrimination.
His sexual orientation and his controversial political positions together often pushed Rustin into behind-the-scenes roles in various campaigns. Arrested in 1953 on a “morals charge,” he lost his job at the FOR and found work with another anti-war group, the War Resisters League. The tensions of his identity finally caused Martin Luther King to choose to part ways and of course, it disrupted his college years as well as leading to arrest during his activist years.
Before their parting, Rustin assisted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Invaluable to Dr. King’s organization of the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957, The National Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959, were Rustin’s strengths in the theory, strategies, and tactics of nonviolent direct action.
Rustin was the Deputy Director and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was until then, the largest demonstration in the nation’s history. The March served as the platform for Dr. King’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech and helped secure pending civil rights legislation.
Despite personal challenges and often struggling to make ends meet in his own living Bayard Rustin soldiered on, on behalf of workers and even refugees.
In 1964 Bayard Rustin helped found the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), named for his mentor. It was the time of voter registration drives and programs designed to strengthen relations between the black community and the labor movement. Rustin had long participated in strikes and was a reliable ally to organized labor. His efforts in the formation of the Recruitment and Training Program (R-T-P, Inc.) helped increase minority participation in the building and construction trades.
His contribution to refugee affairs came as Vice Chairman of the International Rescue Committee. In this role he traveled the world working to secure food, medical care, education, and proper resettlement for refugees. He brought the plight of the Vietnamese boat people to American awareness after visits to Southeast Asia.
Late in his life, in 1980 he took part in the March for Survival on the Thai-Cambodian border and in 1982 he helped found the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Refugees. As Chairman of the Executive Committee of the agency Freedom House, he monitored international freedom and human rights.
Tested but never defeated, Rustin’s views were recorded in the video documentary, Brother Outsider. “You must understand, we are one… and if you don’t know that you will learn it the hard way.”
Interested in the film locations for the current RUSTIN film?