Recognition Overdue for Bayard Rustin

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

Bayard Rustin

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The outcome was, of course, epic, with more than 250,000 marchers gathering in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“One historical account after another,” Long writes, “has deemed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as one of the most important days in the modern civil rights movement — and in U.S. history.” It was also a hugely significant day for Rustin, who, after having “labored in virtual invisibility behind the major players,” was finally acknowledged as the organizational genius who had pulled off the march, according to Long.

Lifelong Lessons in Nonviolence

From early in life, Rustin was set on a course to challenge the status quo. Born in West Chester, Pa., he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandmother Julia Rustin was the major influence in his young life, teaching him the precepts of nonviolence that she herself had learned in a Quaker school and instilling in him liberationist Christian principles. A founding member of the local branch of the NAACP, she also introduced him to early civil rights leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Thus, Rustin was poised not to go gently into a racist world. After moving to New York in 1936, he joined the Young Communist League in response to the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys, who had been falsely charged with raping a white woman.

He then joined forces with A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in planning an early march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces. (The march was canceled when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry.)

Rustin went on to become a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality and, 13 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, to participate in a civil disobedience action against Greyhound for relegating black passengers to the back of its buses. In 1944 he was imprisoned for refusing to be drafted as a pacifist.

He was involved in countless marches and protests, a courageous, tenacious activist who always left a lasting imprint. Before Rustin took the bus out of Montgomery in 1956, for example, he had persuaded King’s followers, still frazzled from the firebombing of their leader’s house, to give up their firearms and adopt the principles of nonviolent action — a strategy that became one of the hallmarks of the civil rights movement (and, according to Long, may have saved countless lives of black protesters).

His involvement with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a fortuitous conjunction of talents and drives, Long adds. The ministers who coalesced with King were passionate in their beliefs but inexperienced in the ways of protest. Rustin once joked that King himself “did not have the ability to organize vampires to go to a bloodbath.”