The Man Behind the March: Remembering Bayard Rustin

By Dreier, Peter | Commonweal, June 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Man Behind the March: Remembering Bayard Rustin


Dreier, Peter, Commonweal


Bayard Rustin was a pacifist, a radical, black, and gay. Not exactly well positioned to influence mid-century America. Yet, from the 1940s through the '60s, he marshaled his considerable talents--as an organizer, strategist, speaker, and writer--to challenge the economic and racial status quo. Always an outsider, he helped catalyze the civil-rights movement with courageous acts of resistance. Rustin was a key aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington--a job he seemed to have prepared for his entire life.

A hundred years after his birth, and twenty-five years after his death, Rustin may finally be getting the recognition he deserves. A variety of civil-rights and gay-rights groups are honoring Rustin with conferences and other events. City Lights Books recently published I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life in Letters, edited by Michael G. Long. In his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, the Chester County Historical Society recently launched an exhibit about Rustin.

The youngest of eight children, Rustin was raised by his grandparents. Although they attended his grandfather's African Methodist Episcopal church, Rustin was strongly influenced by the Quaker faith of his grandmother, who was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some NAACP leaders, including W. E. B. DuBois, stayed with the Rustins when they were on speaking tours.

Rustin was a gifted student, an outstanding athlete, a skilled orator and poet, and an exceptional tenor. Early in his life he revealed a strong social conscience. In high school he was arrested for refusing to sit in the West Chester movie theater's segregated balcony, nicknamed "Nigger Heaven."

Rustin attended two black colleges (Wilberforce University and Cheyney State) before moving to New York City in 1937. He enrolled briefly at the City College of New York, where he got involved with the campus Young Communist League. He was attracted by their antiracist efforts--including their fight against segregation in the military--but he broke with the Communist Party after a few years.

Rustin sang in nightclubs to earn money, and once appeared with Paul Robeson in the Broadway musical John Henry, but he found other ways to channel his prodigious energy, his outrage against racism, and his growing talent as an organizer.

He found two mentors who shaped his philosophy and employed him as an organizer. One was A. Philip Randolph, a socialist who founded of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labor union. Randolph was the nation's most militant civil-rights leader. The other mentor, A. J. Muste, was a radical minister and former union organizer. Time magazine called him the "No. 1 U.S. pacifist." He introduced Rustin to the teachings of Gandhi. Rustin's commitment to Gandhi's principles, along with his Quaker beliefs (he officially joined the church in 1935), shaped his activism for the rest of his life.

Randolph hired Rustin in 1941 to lead the youth wing of the March on Washington, designed to push President Franklin Roosevelt to open up defense jobs to black workers as the United States geared up for World War II. After FDR agreed to issue an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in defense industries, Randolph called off the protest, angering Rustin and opening a temporary breach between them.

Then, under Muste's guidance, Rustin began a series of organizing jobs with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a Christian pacifist group), the American Friends Service Committee, and the War Resisters League. These were small, mostly white organizations that provided Rustin with a home base, a title, a newsletter, and a network of activists around the country. A charismatic speaker, Rustin kept up a hectic travel schedule, preaching the gospel of nonviolence and civil disobedience on campuses, in churches, and at meetings of fellow pacifists. …

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