Recognition Overdue for Bayard Rustin

His partner, Walter Naegle, and Julian Bond weigh in on the life of the civil rights strategist.

Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin, if he were still alive, would turn 100 years old on March 17. Among Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the run-up to the March on Washington, Rustin rarely stepped into the spotlight and labored mostly behind the scenes before 1963.

In truth, Rustin, who died in 1987 at age 75, may have been the one essential ingredient in the mix that miraculously gelled in the 1960s to bring down Jim Crow. He was the civil rights movement’s master strategist, a visionary with an abiding commitment to nonviolent action who created the blueprint for huge advances in the cause of racial equality.

“He was an intellectual bank that civil rights and political leaders could go to for ideas,” said Michael G. Long, editor of I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters (City Lights), scheduled to be released on the centennial of his birth.  

Nonviolent protest, the mass march, coalition building, strategically placed open letters to presidents, cultivating reporters, schmoozing influential federal officials, evolving from protest to politics — all of these movement staples and more sprang from the fertile mind of Bayard Rustin.

“He had a genius for this,” said Julian Bond, a longtime Georgia legislator and chairman emeritus of the NAACP, in an interview with The Root. Bond, who wrote the foreword for the book, added, “He’d come into a situation like Montgomery saying, you need to do this, you need to do that. He’d have these suggestions that made a tremendous difference in the outcome.”

While Rustin was a source of ideas and inspiration, he was also sometimes shunted aside by embarrassed civil rights leadership because he was openly gay and had a youthful association with communism. His enemies quickly learned where to zero in on him, including South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Seeking to discredit the March on Washington before it took place, Thurmond dismissed Rustin, its chief organizer, as a “communist, draft dodger and homosexual.”

A Target of Racists

To read about Rustin’s days as a young man is to be reminded of the bad old days, when gays were routinely arrested on charges of “lewd behavior” or “morals” violations and then saw their careers held hostage to these blots on their records.

Rustin, who never concealed his gayness, had “morals” charges on his record and spent 28 months in federal prison for being a conscientious objector during World War II. There were also numerous arrests for civil disobedience, and he spent 30 days on a chain gang in North Carolina after he was arrested during a protest against segregated seating on interstate buses. And there was that short-lived membership in the Young Communist League.

All of this led, in the uptight 1950s and ’60s, to some mortifying moments, with Rustin being jettisoned from various leadership positions to avoid the taint of scandal. For example, in 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he had to leave town hurriedly when word about his past reached the police. And in 1960, Rustin was forced to resign from King’s inner circle just as it planned major demonstrations at the conventions of the two major political parties.

By 1963, though, King had finally become inured to the attacks from racists and Dixiecrats like Thurmond. And by then, Rustin’s contributions to the civil rights cause were seen as too valuable to give up because of smear campaigns.