I’ve always been interested in the civil rights movement and the general movement for social change. As I’ve read books on the people who’ve participated in the fight for equal rights, one name kept popping up who inspired many of these people to become active. Bayard Rustin is not as well known as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, yet he played an important part in the middle of the twentieth century in organizing protests for civil rights and for anti war causes, and he helped bring Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence into the mainstream of American progressive thought. His work on behalf of important progressive causes was informed by his Quaker faith, and his activism helped improve American society by tearing down segregation in the South and bringing to the forefront issues of economic justice and world peace.
Bayard Rustin grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, under the care of his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin. It was a loving home, in a small community of African American Quakers. Bayard was a gifted student and athelete: Rustin captured West Chester High’s oratory award as a freshman, earned top honor in a schoolwide essay contest, wrote poetry for the school magazine, played leading roles in school plays, was selected in the all county football team, and was part of the mile relay team that won a state championship. In college, he sang in the choir and was known as a talented tenor. Yet in spite of his talent, he still had to struggle against the racism of the times. And it was this combination of his Quaker faith and his experience with racism that lead him to a life of social activism.
Rustin’s road to activism first took hold when he briefly was a member of the American Communist Party in the late 1930s. He quit in 1941 because of its autocratic nature and its subservience to the Soviet Union, but he learned valuable lessons about organizing and tactics for social change from the group. During World War II, Bayard became deeply involved in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian pacifist organization, and learned from A.J. Muste of Mohandas Gandhi and his philosphy of nonviolence. They formed the group, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), to apply Gandhi’s nonviolent strategies for the cause of racial justice. Rustin refused induction in 1944, and went to jail for a year. When he was released, he continued in his activism.
During the Cold War era, Bayard Rustin was constantly harassed by the FBI, the local police, conservative journalists, State Department officials, and segregationists. Rustin represented many things that the more conservative American society was biased against: he was African American; he was a radical leftist; and most of all, he was a gay man. In his book, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, John D’ Emilio wrote:
“As I dug through the evidence and interviewed those who knew him, it became abundantly clear that his sexuality- or, more accurately, the stigma that American scoiety attached to his sexual desires- made him forever vulnerable. Again and again, Rustin found his aspirations blocked, his talents contained, and his influence marginalized. Yes, he also found ways to carve out a significant role in the movements he held dear. But he had to find ways to do this so that unpredictable eruptions of homophobia might not harm these causes.”
In spite of these roadblocks, Rustin had a great influence among the activists of the 1950s and 1960s. He was a member of the War Resisters League and he picketed against nuclear weapons with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Rustin’s tactics of nonviolence was taught to activists as diverse as Grace Paley, Stokely Carmichael, and Martin Luther King Jr. He gave Malcolm X opportunities to debate him at college campuses. Most famous of all, Rustin organized the March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have A Dream” speech.
One of the most interesting things about Rustin for me was an article that he wrote that was published on February 1965 in Commentary magazine. In this article, Rustin felt that as the Civil Rights movement shifted its sights from political rights to economic and social rights, activists had to change their tactics. He felt that the militant street actions that had focused the nations attention to the injustices of segregation would be less effective in the fight for economic equality since these economic disparities were deeply embedded in the structure of the economic system. Since African Americans only made up ten percent of the population at that time, Rustin felt that African Americans needed to create alliances with liberal and trade union organizations to enact progressive legislation to deal with structural economic problems in American society. As he wrote in Commentary magazine:
“The future of the Negro struggle depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved in a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States. I speak of a coaliton… of Negroes, trade unionists, liberal and religious groups… The labor movement, despite its obvious faults, has been the largest single organized force in this country pushing for progressive social legislation.”
Though many of his more radical and activist friends, like Stokely Carmichael and James Farmer, expressed disappointment in Rustin’s analysis, I personally think Rustin was right. As Rustin became more alienated from the more radical turn of the movement in the late 1960s, he saw the Left begin to splinter off and the Democratic Party begin to lose it’s reformist edge. The coalition that Rustin referred to did make its appearance at times, in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s. Obama is attempting to gather such a coalition right now in his run for the Presidency. I think it’s only through such a coalition that progressive legislation can occur.
I only recently discovered Bayard Rustin when I read that he was a great influence on Grace Paley and her activism. The more that I’ve read about him, the more I admire him. As I’ve read about the heroic struggles that he’s fought for civil rights and peace and I read about the many people that he has influences, I find it ashame that not more people know him. His Christian faith that he inherited from his Quaker community helped mold him into a great activist and American. In the book, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, Jervis Anderson quoted Rustin as saying:
“My activism did not spring from being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values instilled in me by the grandparents who reared me. Those values were based on the concept of a sinfle human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal. The racial injustice that was present in this country during my youth was a challenge to my belief in the oneness of the human family. It demanded my involvement in the struggle to achieve interracial democracy; but it is very likely that I would have been involved had I been a white person with the same philosophy. I worked side-by-side with many white people who held these values, some of whom gave as much, if not more, to the struggle than myself.”