Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania of an unwed, black mother. He was raised by his Quaker grandparents and as part of his religious upbringing he was taught that the way to fight the prejudice in his life was by nonviolent means. Bayard’s grandmother, a member of NAACP, encouraged Bayard’s involvement in the black movement.
Bayard graduated from high school and while at the City College of New York, in 1936, he organized the school’s Young Communist League. He later quit the party in 1941 when they opposed the idea of desegregating the military. At that time he became active in The American Friends Service Committee and The War Resister’s League. In 1942 the Friends’ Service Committee sent Bayard to California to become a watchdog for the property of Japanese Americans who were interned in inland camps.
In August of that year the Friends monthly meeting in Manhattan was considering the possibility of providing hospitality to servicemen USO style, and Ruskin wrote the following: The primary social function of a religious society is to speak the truth to power. He opposed Friends supporting the military efforts in any way, and he followed up his pacifist beliefs in 1944 when he refused the alternative service offered to Quakers as a replacement for active service in the military… As a reward he was handed three years in a federal prison.
Even while incarcerated, in 1945 he helped organize Americans in support of Gandhi and Indian Independence. No sooner than he was released in 1947 than Bayard organized the first Freedom Ride in the south, called Journey of Reconciliation to publicize the Jim Crow laws still operating in many states. He was rewarded for this by having to serve 28 days on a chain gang in North Carolina. He wrote a serial article about his experience for The Saturday Evening Post resulting in an investigation and abolishment of chain gangs.
In 1953, Bayard was arrested and jailed on moral charges in Pasadena. He had never hid the fact that he was gay, but this charge would haunt him for his entire life. He was expelled from some important organizations, and from this time forward, even those friendly toward him were afraid of the association. Perhaps his one most important written contribution to peace was in 1954 when he and a few other Quakers came together to write Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.
At the cost of space and time, I must quote part of that wonderful document here: There is a politics of time, but there is also a politics of eternity that man would ignore, but cannot. He plays the politics of time, sees it, manipulates it, imagines it as of himself alone; but both the politics of time and of eternity are of God. Only the eye of faith perceives the relationship, for it alone glimpses the dimension of eternity. Man sees but dimly, yet enough to know the overarching power that moves in the affairs of men. Because we are first men of faith, and only secondarily political analysts, we would speak now, finally, of the politics of eternity which has under girded the whole.
Although it is agreed that Rustin played a most important role in the writing of this significant document, with his agreement, his name did not appear, because, as a homosexual, it was feared that his association might compromise the work’s acceptance. It seems Bayard was never without meaningful activity. In the same year, 1954, he worked with a committee against discrimination in the army that later helped secure President Truman’s order eliminating racial segregation in the armed forces.
In 1956, Rustin’s association with King apparently began. Lillian Smith, a leading woman southern writer, encouraged him to assist King with practical advice on how to apply Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence to the boycott of public transportation in Montgomery Alabama. This became the foundation of his association with King. The result was magic. Bayard orchestrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott and organized many of the Freedom Rides through the south in the late 50’s.
In 1957 he assisted at the birth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and in May of that year he participated in the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom to Washington that urged President Eisenhower to enforce the US Supreme Court’s ruling requiring desegregation of the nation’s schools. In 1960, LBJ learned that Rustin was organizing a civil rights demonstration at the Democratic Convention and told Senator Sam Rayburn and Adam Clayton Powell to get this guy Ruskin. Powell knew of Rustin’s 1953 arrest on morality charges and circulated the rumor that the black nonviolent movement was infiltrated with immoral elements.
In August of 1962, with the orchestration of Bayard Rustin, 200,000 demonstrators gathered in the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King give his famous, I Have a Dream speech. The magic had worked. This was followed in 1963 with the March for Jobs and Freedom with Rustin as chief organizer. This was said to be the largest march on Washington ever held and was instrumental in pushing much of the Civil Rights legislation that followed.
Shortly before this 1963 march, Strom Thurman entered the Senate floor and denounced Rustin as a homosexual, draft dodger, and former member of the Communist Party. He did not add that Ruskin was a Quaker. In November of this year, the FBI placed a wiretap on his apartment, with a writ specifying that Rustin is a prominent adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a known sexual pervert. (FBI Field Report)
Bayard never abandoned the thought that nonviolent direct action is the way to a just society, and he continued to believe that one could Speak truth to power. Because of his views, he debated Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael on that issue, seeing their message and violent attitudes as ending in dead end separatism.
During the years of Richard Nixon, Rustin was on Nixon’s Enemies List. Nat Hentoff in “The Village Voice described Rustin’s reaction, in an article he wrote on January 17, 2003: At a party celebrating that honor, a reporter asked Bayard’s reaction to the designation: ‘I’m delighted,’ he said. ‘Anyone who has his policies on the poor, the homeless, on those who need medical care I hope I shall eternally be an enemy of a man who takes this view. Furthermore, I have never liked liars.’
No he didn’t like liars and he didn’t lie about himself. Open about his sexuality, honest about his past, and willing to speak for his beliefs, Bayard lived his life, as Thoreau would say, listening to his own drummer. Judged by society and societies elect as an illegitimate, draft-dodger, felon, gay, and troublesome he would have agreed and been proud. Why? Because he believed in his right to voice his opinion, follow his faith and have the right to privacy regarding his sexual preferences. He was a peaceful, joyful man caught up in the damning prejudices of our society. The Village Voice said of him, He was the very embodiment of the life force – sharp of wit, observation, and delight in being Bayard Rustin.
No extravagant dinners or honors for Rustin. It was politically damaging to display that you were his friend, but after his death some listened to his words and saw the richness of his beliefs, and a few true Americans in West Chester, PA, his old home town, looked below the rhetoric and the gossip and had respect for what the man represented: As the story goes, Rustin was probably the most famous graduate of West Chester Pa schools and they proudly decided to name the new high school after him.
That was before the community discovered that Rustin was gay, a one time member of the Communist Party, had refused to serve in World War II. Under the greatest of community pressure the school board agreed to rethink their decision The Board carefully did so and then voted 6 to 3 to continue with the dedication. The school board president, Rogers Vaugn said, The contributions that Mr. Rustin made (aren’t) just to civil rights but to the whole United States.
Rustin High School will open in the fall of 2006 a $67 million monument to Bayard Rustin. It cannot make up for what society did to him with its small, prejudiced, vindictive views, but for all of us, it is a start. As National Urban League President Hugh Price told Education Week: “His hometown should not only name a school after him, but they probably ought to have a [high school social studies] course built around his life.”
The course might be titled: The Right to Civil Disobedience, Our Civil Rights and the Right to Freedom of Speech. Let us all learn, as Bayard Rustin said to his fellow Quakers, to Speak truth to Power.
Bayard Rustin born St. Patrick’s Day March 17th 1912 and died of a perforated appendix August 24th 1987, at age 75.
Gay man in the Civil Rights Movement.