Bayard Rustin: Our Own Non-violent Revolutionary
Delivered By Flo Miller
January 14, 2018
How do I summarize in a mere 20 to 30 minutes the life of a man of unconquerable courage, a man with a deep abiding faith and an unyielding commitment to human rights, here and across the world? How do I convey the tragedy of being cast in the shadows in large part because he was gay?
And how do I convey my own admiration and pride in being able to say that he grew up in the town I now love and call my own?
Let’s start with that town, where Rustin was born in 1912, and where the seeds of the man he would become were sown. West Chester in the early decades of the 20th century was not the West Chester we know today, for all its warts. It was a deeply segregated town, where blacks were confined to the balcony of the Warner movie theater, where they were denied service at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, where the school system was segregated through the elementary grades and blacks in the so-called “integrated” high school were channeled into non-academic classes. In short, where blacks “knew their place,” which was nowhere whites could be found.
Rustin would have none of it. Long before the sit-ins of the 1950s and 60s, he was holding his own sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. He just sat there, waiting for the service that never came. He also eschewed the blacks-only balcony of the movie theatre and chose to sit in the “whites only” ground floor instead. He was arrested, but no problem there; he called upon his friends, many of them white, to pay his fines.
Therein lies a circumstance almost unheard of for that time: Rustin’s friends crossed color lines. His magnetic personality just naturally attracted a crew of high school friends that one biographer called “Rustinites.” They came from a cross section of the academically talented, musically inclined, and very athletic high school populations.
Rustin fit into all those categories. He pursued an academic curriculum, finishing 12th in a class of about 100. He had a beautiful singing voice that lent itself to high school productions. His speaking voice was so well modulated that he achieved the seemingly impossible for a black student: he won the highly prestigious D. Webster Meredith Boy’s speaking contest. And he was a star on the 1931 undefeated football team and the track team.
His value to athletic teams led to actions that broke another color line. In out-of-town contests, the coaches had always housed blacks with families while white team members stayed in motels. Rustin refused to go unless he could stay with the rest of the team. The coaches found integrated motels.
In all his high school interactions, Rustin never resorted to angry words or violence. His grandmother, Julia Rustin, deserves the credit for that. A black Quaker – another oddity at that time — she taught Rustin the value of tolerance and a peaceful approach to contentious situations. She also accepted the fact that he was gay, when as a teenager he confessed that he “liked boys more than girls.” He was openly gay and sexually active throughout his life.
Not incidentally, Julia and her husband Janifer raised him as their son. Rustin’s actual mother, Florence, had given birth out of wedlock. His father, Archie Hopkins, did not take responsibility and Florence was a teenager not prepared for motherhood.
Fast forward to Rustin’s young adulthood. He formerly declared himself a Quaker at age 24 in 1936. He attended but did not graduate from Wilberforce University in Ohio and Cheyney State College. The Cheyney experience led to his involvement in his first outside peace project organized by the American Friends Service Committee; after training on the Cheyney campus, the project assigned him and three others to a Friends Student Peace Brigade in Auburn, NY in the summer of 1937.
That fall, he left West Chester for New York, where he performed as a vocalist with Josh White and Paul Robeson. He also enrolled in the City College of New York, but other opportunities beckoned, and he completed only one course. In fact, he was never to receive a college degree, but by life’s end he could boast of many honorary degrees, including from Yale and other prestigious universities.
His attention was first directed toward the segregated armed forces. He joined the Young Communist League because it and the Communist Party in general were the only organizations fighting to end discrimination in this country at the time. Through the YCL, he participated in an unsuccessful campaign to desegregate the Army; he dropped out in 1941 when the American Communist Party ended all desegregation efforts in favor of support for Russia’s part in World War II.
Rustin’s contacts then led him to the black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and the Fellowship for Reconciliation, the FOR, a Christian-based pacifist organization headed by A. J. Muste. By l942, Rustin was working not only as Secretary for Student Affairs for the FOR, but as a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), newly formed by James Farmer. He also became involved in the War Resisters League, considered a secular arm of the FOR.
Muste, who looked upon nonviolence as a sacred human value, followed Gandhi’s philosophy and had a strong influence on Rustin. Through him, Rustin and other principal figures in the FOR because followers of the Indian activist. They read texts on Gandhian philosophy and studied nonviolent strategies and tactics at a Gandhian ashram on Fifth Avenue.
As Rustin traveled the country for the FOR, he gradually incorporated civil rights and Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy into the organization’s pacifist message.
Come Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into the war, Rustin obtained status as a Conscientious Objector. But as a pacifist, he was adamantly opposed to anyone serving in any capacity, in the war and urged other young men to burn their draft cards. So when he was drafted in 1943, he did not invoke his CO status and citing his Christian faith, refused to report.
Rustin was sentenced to a medium security prison, where he proceeded to teach illiterate inmates to read; to teach himself to play the lute; and to successfully integrate his prison block. With the help of other incarcerated COs, he also proved to be a troublemaker; as a result, the ‘troublemakers’ were transferred to a maximum security prison where they were kept separate from other inmates by being confined to the prison library. They reportedly had a fairly good time.
But the stage was set for the accusations that would plague Rustin for the rest of his life: He was a Communist, a draft dodger and – God help us! –a pervert. (His accusers’ words, not mine.) None of it was true of course, but that mattered little to his detractors.
What mattered little to Rustin upon his release from prison was a requirement that he report to the Parole Board every time he left NYC. He was by then a popular speaker at various events for the FOR, the WRL, and the AFSC throughout the country, and he informed the Parole Board that he intended to travel whether he had their permission or not. The Board decided they wanted nothing more to do with this troublemaker and let him go.
In his travels, Rustin protested discrimination on trains and in other public establishments, at times utilizing a “why” tactic. Seated at a segregated lunch counter, for instance, the proprietor would tell him, we don’t serve Negroes here (they used another word). Why? Because it’s the practice of this establishment. Why? Because our customers don’t want to eat with Negroes. Because it’s state law. Why? …. you get the drift. He may have been denied service, but he made his point.
None of this was easy, leading an incredulous colleague to say, “He just knew no fear.”
Shortly after his release from prison, he also began working with George Houser, a member of the FOR and a CORE founder, offering race relations institutes across the country. Participants fanned out in teams to test discrimination in shops, restaurants, and businesses. They desegregated few businesses, but they generated a lot of press, which was almost as good.
Then, in 1947, he worked with the FOR on the First Freedom Ride, the Ride of Reconciliation. We talked about that in the earlier readings. Houser, who helped with the planning, called it “a hell of an experience.” The report that grew out of Rustin’s chain gang experience was published in New York and Baltimore newspapers; it came to the attention of the governor of North Carolina, who eventually ordered the end of chain gangs as punishment for crime.
Rustin’s next project was the desegregation of the military. He worked with Houser and Randolph on a campaign that took advantage of the very complicated political situation at the time. The extended and at times contentious campaign ended when Truman, on July 26, 1948, issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces.
All this was prelude to the major civil rights campaigns that were to follow, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott.
But several other significant events were to preclude the Montgomery experience. Mainly, in late 1948 and early 1949 Rustin spent seven weeks in India. Here he met with Prime Minister Pandit Nehru and traveled throughout India, lecturing on the application of Gandhian methods to what he called America’s caste system.
Rustin’s popularity was growing, but it all came to an abrupt halt in January of 1953, when he was arrested on morals charges in Sam Francisco after policemen found him engaging in sex with two men in the back seat of a car. Rustin had been in compromising situations before but none involved arrest. This was the last straw for Muste, who had repeatedly warned Rustin. Rustin resigned from the FOR. Left alone and adrift, he turned to the War Resisters League, where he was eventually hired as the executive director.
His most successful project over 12 years with the league was the launching of Liberation, a new magazine of the radical left. Despite their estrangement, Muste worked with Rustin on it. The two men were was never as close as they had been, but they were able to work effectively together.
Come 1955, Rustin joined a group of New York leftists who called themselves “In friendship” with Randolph the chair. Word of the Montgomery bus boycott reached the group. Civil rights leaders in New York worried that southern blacks would respond in violence, so after considerable discussion in Randolph’s office, the FOR agreed to send Rustin.
Arriving in Montgomery, Rustin found that the homes of boycott leaders were guarded with guns. There were multiple guns inside King’s house as well. So the first thing he did was to tell King to “put away the guns.” Thus what might have been a blood bath was averted.
Rustin was forced to leave Montgomery after several weeks because the local newspaper tracked down his identity. Glenn Smiley, who was not a recognizable public figure, stayed behind. But before he left, Rustin recorded in a Montgomery Diary that “I had the feeling no force on earth can stop this movement. It has all the elements to touch the hearts of men.”
Back in New York, Rustin worked to inform Northern peace networks of the burgeoning civil rights movement in the south. Equally if not more important, he developed a relationship of total trust with King, who conferred with him frequently.
He also raised the issue of a permanent organization to coordinate a campaign to end Jim Crow. Under the direction of King, he wrote a series of working papers that in subsequent meetings became the basis of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rustin is given considerable credit for founding the SCLC.
Several rallies at this time paved the way for the successful 1963 March on Washington. The first, organized by Rustin with two pacifist colleagues, was a Madison Square rally to draw attention to Montgomery. The second successful event was a prayer pilgrimage in Washington in 1957. The third was a youth march in Washington in April 1959. It’s notable that these events were tightly organized and served as a harbinger of what was to come.
But life was never to run smoothly for Rustin, and in 1960 the timeworn labels of “Communist, draft dodger, and pervert” came back to haunt him. Rustin had joined King and other Civil Rights leaders in planning a demonstration at the Democratic National Convention that summer. NAACP President Roy Wilkins, who had clashed with Rustin over tactics in the past, was not supportive of the plans. (He thought they were window dressing.) He informed Adam Clayton Powell of his objections, and Powell in turn warned King that unless plans for the demonstration were cancelled, King would be accused of having an affair with Rustin.
As a result, the close relationship between King and Rustin was broken – a break that must have hurt Rustin deeply. The demonstration itself went off on schedule, but it lacked Rustin’s organizational talents and had little impact.
In the next two and a half years. Rustin worked with the WRL. On tours of this country for the league, he was able to stay in touch with civil rights activists and he remained up-to-date on the demonstrations and sit-ins spreading throughout the south.
Then, early in 1963, Randolph resurrected long-held plans for a March on Washington. Rustin, whose relationship with Randolph had never faltered, was brought into the planning. All of the country’s major civil rights organizations – SNCC, CORE, SCLC, the NAACP and the National Urban League — gradually came on board. As planning progressed, it became apparent that Rustin, with his proven organizational skills, was taking a leadership role. So – you guessed it – -those same old labels were dragged out as some of the march participants expressed concern about allowing an accused “communist, draft dodger, and pervert” direct the march.
Randolph saved the day when he said he would take on the title of march director but reserved the right to name his own assistant. Everyone knew it would be Rustin, but the compromise won the day.
The issue was settled on July 2, leaving Rustin only eight weeks to plan what became the best-organized and most effective march in history at that time. He brought to the effort the skills and contacts he had acquired during his many years in the pacifist movement and his experience in prior marches. Today we have fax machines, computers, cell phones, email, Twitter, and Facebook (I know I’ve missed a few) to plan marches. Rustin didn’t even have an intercom system, or an elevator in a donated multi-story office in Harlem.
He left nothing to chance, calculating the number of toilets needed, the number of doctors to staff first aid stations, the number of parking lots for buses, and where. He arranged for his own police force. And so on and so on.
All of this made the powers-that-be in Washington very nervous., and the FBI reviewed an extensive file on Rustin’s past activities. An enraged Sen. Strom Thurmond received the FBI file from J. Edgar Hoover. When the Washington Post printed a positive article about Rustin on Sunday, Aug. 12, (the headline read “Organizer of District of Columbia March is Devoted to Nonviolence”) Thurmond’s rage boiled over, and he put before Congress Rustin’s history of arrests, including the 1953 arrest on morals charges.
For the first time, Civil Rights leaders came to Rustin’s defense. Speaking for all the leaders of the march, Randolph delivered a response to the charges voicing his confidence in Rustin’s abilities. It was a turning point for Rustin, who had been sidelined by same leaders so often in the past.
I’m going to assume you all know the details of the march itself – some of you may have even been there. Suffice it to say that Rustin came into his own, and his relationship with MLK, Jr. was revived.
Time does not permit me to go into depth about the remaining decades of Rustin’s life. He remained in the movement for several years after the march. King conferred with him on a daily basis during the Montgomery campaign, and he was on the platform with King at the end of the successful Selma to Montgomery March. He was among several civil rights workers called to DC to confer with Johnson after King’s assassination.
But the growing militarism of student leaders and increasing riots in the streets eventually brought him to a parting of the ways. He also felt that the future of the movement should be directed to politics, especially since Johnson had proved a supporter of civil rights. Possibly because he wished to remain on good terms with Johnson, he did not join demonstrations and rallies opposing the Vietnam War. That drove many of his old colleagues to denounce him.
In the spring of 1965, Rustin and Randolph announced the formation of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Its purpose was to build connections between labor unions and civil rights groups and to press for inclusion of economic issues in the civil rights movement. Rustin was named director, and it remained his home base of operations for the rest of his life. It is still in existence today.
In his later years, Rustin became increasingly involved in international affairs, working to promote human rights throughout the world.
And at the age of 65, he found love for the first time. He met Walter Naegle, a relative youngster of 27, on a New York Street Corner. They were attracted to each other almost immediately and were together for the rest of Rustin’s life. Rustin had been in relationships before but none were sustained for an extended period of time.
With Naegle’s encouragement, Rustin became involved in the Gay Rights Movement in the 1980s. Naegle also facilitated the healing of wounds and the renewing of friendships between Rustin and his old friends in the civil rights movement.
Their age difference actually proved an advantage to them. Gay marriage was not legal then, and Rustin wanted to find some way to ensure Naegle would have power of health and attorney and would inherit an extensive art and antique collection. So the two of them consulted a lawyer, who said that the difference in ages would permit adoption, which was the only option open to them. I have always found it ironic that a homophobic society that denounced gay marriage forced two men in a loving partnership to commit what would technically be defined as incest.
Rustin died on August 24, 1987. He had been in Haiti and on coming home experienced intestinal discomfort. The doctor prescribed medications for an intestinal parasite. When extreme pain led him to a hospital emergency room, physicians diagnosed a burst appendix. He was operated on and put on antibiotics, but the strain on his heart was too great and he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Notifying friends and associates of the death, Naegle said, “we lost Bayard.” He used the plural “we” because he felt the loss was more than personal; it was a loss to the world. I would tend to agree. On August 24, 1987 we all lost Bayard.