Civil Rights Activist Bayard Rustin (1912–1987)
A central figure in movements for civil rights for most of his life
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” ~ Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin spent a lifetime in the service of groups longing to be recognized as societal equals. His Quaker upbringing led him to stand up against injustice wherever he saw it. As a teenager, this meant sitting in the ‘whites-only’ section of a theater. As a young man, this meant helping Japanese-Americans secure their belongings before they were sent to Internment Camps during World War II. Later, he was one of the principal architects of the American Civil Rights movement for racial equality and spearheaded many of the era’s most significant civil rights events. Rustin stood up against poverty and stood up for gender equality, Labor Rights, the Independence of African Nations, LGBT rights, etc.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 17, 1912 to fifteen-year-old Florence Rustin. The teenage girl was ill-equipped for motherhood and ceded the responsibility of raising Bayard to his grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin. The couple raised him as their own, considering Rustin to be their ninth child. His grandmother, with whom he had a close relationship, instilled in him the Quaker and pacifist beliefs that would carry him though a lifetime of activism.
In 1932 he graduated from Wester Chester High School with honors. Rustin was considered a ‘big man’ on campus, a star football player, intuitive and intelligent student, and talented vocalist. After graduating, he enrolled at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, on a music scholarship. Rustin dropped out in 1934. His increasingly Quaker ideals ran at odds with the school’s requirement that male students join the ROTC. He enrolled at Pennsylvania’s Cheyney State Teachers College, a Quaker school for black students. It was around this time that his political beliefs were solidifying, and he was gaining clarity about his sexual orientation.
Rustin joined the Society of Friends in 1936 and announced he was a Quaker. His pacifism had developed into an ambitious, transformative vision that employed nonviolence both on its own terms and as a means to end discrimination and equalize economic opportunity in the United States. A year later, he became a leading antiwar spokesman on campus at Cheyney State Teachers College. Soon after, just shy of graduating, after he’d completed an activist training program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Rustin left school and moved to New York City.
In 1940, he joined the Young Communists League (YCL) as a youth organizer. He soon quit after the Communist Party ordered him to stop protesting racial segregation in the US armed forces. Between the Winter of 1940 and Spring of 1941, he worked with A Philip Randolph to organize a March on Washington Movement against racial discrimination in defense industries. In June of 1941, when FDR banned discrimination in war-related industries and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to monitor compliance, the March was canceled.
Rustin worked as Race Relations Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) while organizing the march with Randolph. In 1942 he was sent to California by (FOR) and (AFSC) to help protect the property of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps. That same year, Bayard sat in a second-row seat while traveling on a bus from Louisville to Nashville. He was arrested and beaten for not moving to the back. This would be the first of twenty-four arrests over Rustin’s lifetime.
He refused to enter the draft or perform alternate service, so in 1944 he was arrested and spent the next three years of his life in a federal prison. Rustin was released after twenty-six months. Just a short time after his release, in April 1947, Bayard and fifteen others set off on a tour of southern states to test a recent Supreme Court ruling on discrimination during interstate travel. On April 13, Rustin was arrested for disorderly conduct in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for refusing to move to the back of the bus when asked. The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld his conviction, and in March — April 1949 Rustin spent twenty-two days on a prison chain gang.
After his release, Rustin wrote an article that was published in several newspapers. It documented his experience and led to the reform of prison chain gangs.
His grandmother’s influence could be seen in Rustin’s belief in an intensely non-violent protest. Mahatma Gandhi had a huge impact on him for the same reason, and Bayard planned to travel to India to meet and learn from the man himself in 1948. Unfortunately, in January of that year, Gandhi was assassinated. Rustin still traveled to India that year, and for seven weeks, learned Gandhi’s philosophies of non-violence from family members and other associates of the recently assassinated man.
In January 1953, Rustin was arrested on a ‘sex perversion’ charge and jailed for allegedly having consensual sex with a man in a parked car in Pasadena, California. He was forced to register as a sex offender. He spent fifty days in jail and, in March of that year, was forced to resign from his position with FOR. The white men with Rustin received no jail time.
Rustin had been privately open about his sexuality for years, but the public response to the incident dogged him for many years. His reputation was tarnished. Many within the Civil Rights Movement even questioned whether his inclusion would hurt their cause. He remained but was relegated to the sidelines for many years after.
In the Fall of that year, he accepted a position with the War Resisters League (WRL), a secular pacifist group.
At the urging of A. Philip Randolph, Rustin met with Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 to offer support during the ongoing Montgomery bus boycott. He became a “tutor and mentor” to King Jr., and Rustin became “tutor and mentor” to King, teaching him the nonviolent tactics that became central to the civil rights movement. King Jr. had an academic understanding of the teachings of Gandhi, but Bayard was the first to show him the practical application of those philosophies in non-violence.
The boycott, which history considers the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation, lasted from December 5, 1955 — December 20, 1956. It led to the integration of the Montgomery bus system by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rustin quickly became one of King Jr.’s closest advisers.
Between December 1956 — January 1957, King Jr. and Rustin formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization was created to help local organizations working for the full equality of African Americans in all aspects of American life.
The SCLC later would play a major role in the 1963 March of Washington for Freedom and Jobs.
In 1959, Rustin and MLK Jr. began preparing to lead a boycott of African Americans outside the 1960 Democratic National Convention to protest the party’s tepid record on civil rights. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton-Powell Jr. threatened to start a rumor that Rustin and King Jr. were lovers if the men carried through with the protest.
For the benefit of the march and the movement, King Jr. publicly disassociated himself with Rustin. Bayard went from standing alongside MLK’s to a sideline player of the campaign — relegated to the shadows.
Rustin also resigned from his position with the SCLC.
Bayard and long-time associate A. Philip Randolph met in December 1962 met to discuss the possibility of a march on Washington. President Kennedy and Congress had remained flat-footed on Civil Rights measures, and with violence ratcheting up in the South, the men believed it was time to apply some pressure.
On July 2, 1963, movement leaders met in New York to begin planning the march. The demands of the event organizers was ten-fold:
1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans:
- Access to all public accommodations
- Decent housing
- Adequate and integrated education
- The right to vote
2. Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.
3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.
4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised.
5. A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
6. Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any Constitutional right is violated.
7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)
9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.
Although Rustin played a major role in organizing the March, his name wasn’t added to public facing documents related to the event. However, he was included in the decision-making processes behind-the-scenes.
Senator Strom Thurmond took the the Senate floor on August 13, 1963 to try and derail the march and discredit Rustin. He called him a Communist, draft dodger, and pervert. Thurmond even entered Bayard’s arrest record into the official Congressional Record. Although movement leaders by-and-large abandoned him in the past, the stood behind Rustin against the onslaught of the bigoted South Carolina senator.
On August 28 an estimated 200–300 thousand people attended the March on Washington in Washington D.C. It was a rousing success, even beyond the lofty hopes of organizers. Dr. King Jr., who delivered his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the event, would go on the call the event a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rustin, not listed on the event program, announced the organization’s demands to the crowd.
On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965. It prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
Rustin considered the March on Washington to be the close of the movement, a transition from demonstration to the ballot box. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Rustin hoped that clearer access to the ballot box would lead to more change.
This change in focus eventually disillusioned many people in the black community, and led to calls questioning Rustin’s allegiances.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin would work with the Freedom House (FH) to support and defend democracy at home and abroad.
In April of 1977, he met Walter Naegle near Times Square in New York. Despite the thirty-seven year age difference between the two, sparks flew. Soon after, the two fell in love and remained romantic partners for the rest of Rustin’s life.
Naegle moved in with Rustin in 1981. The following year, to cement their commitment to each other, Rustin adopted Naegle. Same-sex marriage was illegal at the time, and adoption ensured that the two men would be partners for life. Bayard, significantly older than Naegle, also wanted to make sure that his partner’s rights were protected after his passing.
Rustin, never one to hide his sexual orientation behind closed doors, came out publicly — on his terms. He became an advocate for LGBT rights, and between 1985–1986, he successfully lobbied the New York City government to adopt an LGBT rights bill. Passed on March 20, 1986, it banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
In July 1987, Rustin and Naegle traveled to Haiti to observe the country’s election processes. Upon their return to New York City, Rustin fell ill. On August 24, 1987, Bayard Rustin passed away after surgery for a perforated appendix and peritonitis.
On November 20, 2013, Rustin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
In 2018, the Montgomery Board of Education named a Rockville, Maryland elementary school Bayard Rustin School.
On February 5, 2020, Rustin was pardoned by California Governor Newsom to clear those who had been charged for same-sex encounters.
Bayard Rustin was a central figure in civil rights movements for the majority of his life, one that, until recently, was criminally under-recognized for his contributions. The fact is that there were very few pivotal moments in civil rights history from the 40s — 70s that weren’t touched by Rustin’s fingers. Even in the 80s, while enjoying the twilight years of his life, he continued to find time to help others in their quest for equality. Rustin lived with an unceasing commitment to non-violence, passing the lessons he learned to Martin Luther King Jr., benefiting the U.S. civil rights movement. Throughout each of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs he experienced, he remained true to himself.
Bibliography available here.