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.
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."
Rustin stuck to his pacifist principles, even in the face of the black power movement and the rise of Malcolm X, whom Rustin once debated (pretty much a draw, a Village Voice writer reported in 1962). Rustin also continued to insist that poor whites were as worthy of his efforts as downtrodden blacks.
Other Liberation Struggles
By the 1970s, though, the tides of change were flowing in a different direction, and Rustin often found himself on the less popular side of the debates that roiled the movement. Interestingly, he did not take part in the gay-rights movement — though not from lack of interest, according to Walter Naegle, Rustin's longtime partner and the executor of the Rustin estate.
"Remember that phrase, 'Don't trust anyone over 30'?" Naegle said in an interview with The Root. "At the time of the Stonewall protests, the leaders of the gay alliance were young people, for the most part. Bayard was almost 60 at the time." Rustin, at Naegle's urging, did speak at gay events and wrote letters in support of the cause.
More significant, Rustin was never engaged in the anti-Vietnam War movement. In fact, he advised King not to get involved, saying that it would detract from the more important work of social change — advice that, for once, King did not heed.
Why wouldn't a committed pacifist like Rustin jump in full blast? "He still had a streak that, after his disillusionment with the Young Communist League, was deeply opposed to communism," Long said. "The anti-war activists were calling for the immediate, unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam [which had communist leadership]."
In his later years, Rustin shifted his focus to the plight of refugees and to Third World liberation movements. He continued to write long, bitingly lucid letters and articles — always by hand, Naegle said, with a secretary or assistant typing them. (Rustin's writing was a plain cursive — inelegant but easy to read.) And he spent hours picking through antique stores and flea markets in search of art finds and additions to his collection of walking sticks.
He was, above all, a communicator, Naegle said: "He was somebody who was really comfortable with who he was, and it came across in his interaction with people, whether it was with kids in a refugee camp or the president."
In 1950 Rustin complained in a letter to an associate about Albert Einstein's refusal to take part in demonstrations against the construction of the hydrogen bomb, another one of Rustin's protest targets. Einstein had referred vaguely to the need to leave the protesting to purists who practiced the principles of nonviolence espoused by Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948.
Rustin responded sourly. "Already they have begun to do to Gandhi what has been done to Jesus — worship him as an unobtainable ideal," he wrote to his associate. "That is the sin of men of goodwill — not really to believe in their own power."
It was a mistake that this "resister extraordinaire," as several writers have described him, never fell into.
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.