Bayard Rustin: A Forgotten American Hero

(Note: This is a repost of a blog I originally ran a year ago today.)

For most, March 17th, 2012 holds no particular significance. However, it marks a day of great historical importance, for it is the 100th anniversary of Bayard Rustin’s birth. So who was Bayard Rustin? For decades, he was one of the most important black leaders in the United States.

Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania to an unwed teenage mother and raised by his maternal grandparents. It was not until the age of ten that he learned that his grandparents were not his biological mother and father. Three significant aspects of Rustin’s character make him one of the most admirable historical figures ever.

Rachelle Horowitz, a fellow civil rights activist who worked with Rustin for many years, once stated, “He was all-absorbing, a universal man…I don’t think he had a racist bone in him.” As such, Bayard was vehemently opposed to black separatism. He publicly debated Malcolm X on the merits of integration, arguing that racial equality should be pursued and that the abilities of anti-racist whites as well as blacks needed to be utilized in the struggle for equality.

When Rustin discovered that Stanley Levison, a left-wing Jewish businessman, had much to contribute to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, he introduced Levison to Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the same time, Bayard Rustin was never ashamed of his race. This can be seen in his relationship with the Communist Party. In his early career as an activist, he joined the Young Communist League. It cannot be denied that throughout his life, Rustin believed in massive wealth redistribution as part of the solution to poverty and racial inequality. But this does not diminish his fifty-plus-year career of fighting discrimination and injustice.

In the 1930s, the Communist Party tapped into the dissatisfaction African Americans felt at being neglected by both major parties. When World War II first broke out, Communist leaders in the United States urged African Americans not to fight in a “capitalist” war when they were denied equal rights at home. Once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, however, the Communist Party changed positions and made supporting the Allied war effort a top priority. Thus, they decided that activism against racism in America had to take a back seat.

Rustin quit the party and began working for an anti-war, anti-racism organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation as Race Relations Secretary. In this capacity, he travelled the country conducting workshops to promote racial harmony. He traveled to California to help protect the property of Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps. He also served as the first Field Secretary of the Congress of Racial Equality. In addition, he helped plan and participate in the Journey of Reconciliation.  This served as the prototype for the later and more well known Freedom Rides.

Around the same time, he played a decisive role in getting President Harry Truman to issue an executive order banning military segregation. He began working with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950’s, starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He went on to organize the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957 and the National Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959.

He served as Deputy Director and was the head organizer of the monumental 1963 March On Washington, where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. According to John Lewis, another of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important figures, the March On Washington would have been “like a bird without wings” without Rustin.

From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, Rustin was also involved in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He organized the Committee to Support South African Resistance in 1951.  In 1983, he published a report that led to the founding of Project South Africa, a group that worked to mobilize American support for peaceful anti-apartheid groups. Finally, for the last ten years of his life, he was romantically involved with a white man, showing that love cannot be restricted along racial lines.

His debate with Malcolm X notwithstanding, Rustin’s role in the Civil Rights Movement was primarily behind-the-scenes. The reason for this lies in his interracial relationships. Many black civil rights leaders, from Frederick Douglass to James Farmer, were involved in interracial relationships and were able to remain in the spotlight. Rustin’s interracial relationships were much more controversial, however, because they were with other men.   Bayard Rustin was gay.

His discovery of his sexual orientation was not without trauma. At the age of fourteen, he was taken advantage of by a man.  It was then that he discovered he was gay. In a society where homosexuality was legally classified as a criminal offense, and the idea of monogamous same-sex couples was simply not discussed, Bayard found it difficult to form a committed relationship. For years he engaged in a number of short-term relationships. Finally, however, in his sixties, he settled down with a young Jewish man named Walter Naegle.

The two men remained a couple until Rustin’s death in 1987. During this time, he gave multiple interviews discussing the impact of homophobia on his life’s work. He received invitations to address gay rights groups, and he testified in favor of a proposed gay rights bill in New York City. To the aging Rustin, gay rights was simply a logical extension of black civil rights, and much to the chagrin of many, he was unafraid to draw a comparison between the two causes.

To Bayard Rustin, unjust rules were made to be broken. Around the time he split with the Communist Party, the United States government attempted to conscript Bayard Rustin to fight in World War II. Believing in non-violence and probably not wanting to fight in the U.S. military for “freedom” when blacks (to say nothing of gays) were denied freedom in America, Rustin refused to register for the draft. He spent the next three years in federal prison.

The Journey of Reconciliation that he helped plan and participated in involved intentionally violating segregated seating restrictions on buses and trains in the South. Not surprisingly, he, along with other activists, was subjected to physical violence, arrests, and fines. It was at that time that Rustin spent 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang.

Some admirable figures in history, such as John Brown, have used violence in an attempt to achieve equal rights for oppressed people. Others, such as Rustin, used non-violence. One of Rustin’s greatest achievements was showing that non-violence did not have to be passive or accommodating. While he did not resort to physical force, Rustin made it clear that he would not stand for his rights being denied. He is indeed one of the paragons of non-violent civil disobedience.  No one epitomizes this philosophy better than Rustin.

At the centennial of Rustin’s birth, he remains an obscure figure in most people’s minds.  This is partly due to the way that he was kept behind closed doors in the Civil Rights Movement. Both liberal black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and southern segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond tried to use Rustin’s sexual orientation to discredit him. Children do not learn about Rustin in school. When Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month roll around, people hear little or nothing about him. But in this day and age, with the fight for same sex marriage and other forms of gay equality gaining more momentum than ever, it is time to bring the man Professor John D’Emilio called a “lost prophet” out of the shadows and give him the respect and accolades that he deserves.

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