Disappointed when the 1941 March on Washington was called off, Rustin joined the pacifist Rev. A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation, and when FOR members in Chicago launched the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, Rustin traveled around the country speaking out. Two years later, he was arrested for failing to appear before his draft board and refusing alternative service as a conscientious objector. Sentenced to three years, he ended up serving 26 months, angering authorities with his desegregation protests and open homosexuality to the point they transferred him to a higher-security prison.
Once released, Rustin embarked on CORE’s 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, an early version of the Freedom Rides, to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Morgan v. Virginia (1946) that any state forcing segregation on buses crossing state lines would be in violation of the Commerce Clause. It was a noble attempt, but Rustin soon found himself on a chain gang in North Carolina.
As part of his deepening commitment to nonviolent protest, Rustin traveled to India in 1948 to attend a world pacifist conference. Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year, but his teachings touched Rustin in profound ways. “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,” he wrote after returning to the States. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn”
Before then, however, was shame. In January 1953, Rustin, after delivering a speech in Pasadena, Calif., was arrested on “lewd conduct” and “vagrancy” charges, allegedly for a sexual act involving two white men in an automobile. With the FBI’s file on Rustin expanding, FOR demanded his resignation. That left Rustin to conclude, “I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer,” according to Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, edited by Devon Carbado and Donald Weise.
Enter (and Exit) Dr. King
In 1956, on the advice of labor leader and activist A. Philip Randolph, Rustin traveled to Alabama to lend support to Dr. King, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While remaining out of the spotlight, Rustin played a critical role in introducing King to Gandhi’s teachings while writing publicity materials and organizing carpools. After helping King organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1956-1957, Rustin demonstrated against the French government’s nuclear test program in North Africa. As he once said, so simply and clear, “I want no human being to die” (as quoted in the documentary film, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin).
Rustin experienced one of the lowest points in his career in 1960, and the author of this crisis wasn’t J. Edgar Hoover; it was another black leader. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, angry that Rustin and King were planning a march outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, warned King that if he did not drop Rustin, Powell would tell the press King and Rustin were gay lovers. Regardless of the fact that Powell had concocted the charge for his own malicious reasons, King, in one of his weaker moments, called off the march and put distance between himself and Rustin, who reluctantly resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by King. For that King “lost much moral credit … in the eyes of the young,” the writer James Baldwin wrote in Harper’s magazine. Fortunately for us, Rustin put the movement ahead of this vicious personal slight.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
The idea for the 1963 march again came from A. Philip Randolph, who wondered if younger activists were giving short shrift to economic issues as they pushed for desegregation in the South. In 1962, he recruited Rustin, and the two began making plans, this time to commemorate the centennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Birmingham changed everything,” John D’Emilio writes in his 2003 biography, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. In May 1963, the nation gasped as Birmingham police under the notorious commissioner Bull Connor turned fire-hoses and attack dogs on children. The fallout forced the Kennedy administration to jump-start action on a civil rights bill, and suddenly, D’Emilio explains, “the outlook for a march on Washington” shifted. “King, who had not shown much interest in the earlier overtures from Rustin and Randolph, began to talk excitedly about a national mobilization, as if the idea were brand new.”