Rustin, Bayard Taylor

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RUSTIN, Bayard Taylor

(b. 17 March 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania; d. 24 August 1987 in New York City), distinguished African-American civil rights activist who helped to organize the massive August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest civil rights demonstration the United States had ever seen.

One of nine children, Rustin was raised as the son of Janifer Rustin, a caterer, and Julia (Davis) Rustin, a social worker and caterer, just southwest of Philadelphia. At the age of eleven, he discovered that the people he had thought were his parents were actually his grandparents. His real mother, he learned, was a woman named Florence, who he had been told was an older sister. His father, Archie Hopkins, was a native of the West Indies with whom Florence had had a brief relationship. His grandmother, Julia, a Quaker, early on instilled in young Rustin a commitment to social justice.

The family lived in a poor section of West Chester, which had been an important way station on the Underground Railroad, a fact that helped shape Rustin's decision to become a social activist. Of his hometown, Rustin wrote in his Strategies for Freedom (1976), "The antislavery sentiment of the inhabitants was revealed in the town's architecture, for beneath its aging, Colonial homes ran hidden passageways which had concealed runaway slaves from [their] southern plantation owners."

As a student at West Chester Senior High School, Rustin excelled in both academics and athletics. After his graduation, Rustin drifted around the country, working at odd jobs and studying briefly when he could scrape together the funds for tuition. Although he never received a college degree, over the years he took courses at Wilberforce University in Ohio (1930–1931), Cheyney State Normal School (later Cheyney State College) in Pennsylvania (1931–1933), and the City College of New York (1933–1935). He moved to New York City in 1931 to live with a relative and worked irregularly, singing with a variety of musical groups performing in Greenwich Village.

In 1936 Rustin became affiliated with the Communist Party, a connection that would come to haunt him later in life. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL) and was quickly put to work as a recruiter. When the Communists backed off on their push for U.S. racial reform after the outbreak of World War II, Rustin quit the YCL in 1941, the same year that he cofounded the Congress for Racial Equality. During the war Rustin, who was a conscientious objector, was imprisoned for twenty-eight months in a federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky (1943–1945).

Rustin worked for a time with A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement and, through Randolph, he was introduced to A. J. Muste, the head of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an international pacifist organization. Rustin was hired as FOR's youth secretary. In 1942 he and James Farmer were named as the directors of FOR's newly established Department of Race Relations. In the early 1950s after Rustin, an admitted homosexual, had a few brushes with the law because of his sexual orientation, he was warned that any further negative publicity would force his dismissal from FOR. After being arrested on morals charges in Pasadena, California, in 1953, he quietly resigned from FOR.

As the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s, Rustin was quick to offer his services. Many African-American leaders feared, however, that his political past and personal life might bring discredit upon the movement. As a consequence, Rustin's primary role in the civil rights campaign was behind the scenes, as an organizer, strategist, liaison, and speechwriter. Although Rustin had helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the late 1950s, he was forced to resign from the organization in 1960 when the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to expose Rustin's personal and political past. His resignation from the SCLC did not sever Rustin's close ties to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom he had worked on the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Behind the scenes, Rustin remained a close adviser to King and other members of the SCLC leadership for many years. In 1953 Rustin was appointed as the executive secretary of the War Resister's League, a large pacifist organization, and he planned and executed a series of antinuclear demonstrations and the San Francisco to Moscow Peace Walk in the late 1950s.

Without question, Rustin's crowning achievement was the organization and coordination of the August 1963 March on Washington, which earned him the nickname "Mr. March." The idea for such a massive civil rights demonstration had originated with A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. Randolph had already planned a march on the nation's capital as a labor rally for his union members. King, meanwhile, believed that the civil rights movement was on the verge of a breakthrough and badly needed a "mass protest" to win greater popular support. Rustin and other advisers suggested to King that Randolph might be willing to see his rally expanded into a broader civil rights demonstration, giving King and the civil rights cause the national publicity it needed to achieve its ultimate goals.

Randolph agreed to the suggestions for a broader-based march and asked Rustin to organize the massive demonstration, naming him the deputy director of the march committee. Rustin's particular genius lay in his ability to draw together all the disparate elements of the civil rights movement, creating what became one of the largest protest events in the history of the United States. The march drew about 250,000 civil rights supporters to Washington, D.C., but the truly remarkable achievement of the demonstration was the extraordinary climate of dignity, order, and peacefulness in which the event was staged. Critics had predicted confidently that such a massive protest would spark violence and widespread disorder. In the event, however, Washington police recorded only four march-related arrests, all of white people.

The historian Taylor Branch, writing in Pillar of Fire (1998), observed that, in the wake of the peaceful staging of the March on Washington, Rustin was credited as an unparalleled social engineer who had managed to pull off what many had thought impossible. "Overnight, Rustin became if not a household name at least a quotable and respectable source for racial journalism, his former defects as a vagabond ex-Communist homosexual henceforth overlooked or forgiven." So highly did King value Rustin's counsel that in the spring of 1964 he strongly considered hiring him to replace the outgoing Wyatt Walker as the SCLC executive director. Other King advisers cautioned the civil rights leader against such a decision, arguing that not even the success of the March on Washington could wash away the political liabilities of Rustin's political past and sexual orientation. In the end, Rustin was not offered the SCLC job, but he continued to serve as a trusted adviser to King until the latter's assassination on 4 April 1968. Rustin was part of the delegation that accompanied King to Oslo, Norway, for the presentation to King of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Although Rustin and King continued to maintain close ties, their political ideologies diverged more and more after 1964, as they disagreed on such issues as the Vietnam War and King's decision to take the civil rights struggle north, using Chicago as a hub for its activity.

In 1965 Rustin was appointed as the executive director of the newly founded A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI). In this position he directed APRI's day-to-day operations, which included the sponsorship of voter registration drives and civil rights conferences as well as endorsement of political candidates. Rustin continued to travel and lecture extensively across the country. In addition to his efforts in the struggle for civil rights, Rustin was a longtime supporter of workers' rights. A staunch ally of organized labor, he took part in a number of strikes and, in the mid-1960s, helped form the Recruitment and Training Program (R-TP, Inc.), launched to increase minority participation in the building and construction trades.

Rustin's organizational skills were responsible for numerous successful civil rights demonstrations during the 1960s, including a 1964 boycott, attended by more than 400,000 students, of New York City's school system to protest the school board's foot-dragging on classroom integration. He also organized the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, which drew thousands of civil rights supporters—black and white—to Washington, D.C., to set up a "Resurrection City" on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial.

In the early 1970s Rustin stepped down as the executive director of APRI, becoming the organization's honorary president. He remained involved in APRI policy-making and other activities, serving as the organization's chair from 1979 to 1987. He lectured widely on social issues throughout the United States and abroad. One year before his death, Rustin founded Project South Africa to generate financial support for the country's full democratization. After a fact-finding mission to Haiti in the summer of 1987, Rustin returned to New York and shortly thereafter fell ill. After a series of misdiagnoses, he was found to have a perforated appendix. He died at the age of seventy-seven of a heart attack following surgery for acute appendicitis. Rustin's memorial service was held on 1 October 1987 at the Community Church in Manhattan. He was cremated and his ashes are interred at a private residence in upstate New York.

Rustin's contributions to the advancement of social causes—most notably civil rights—in the United States are difficult to calculate since much of his work was done behind the scenes. Enormously gifted, Rustin would have enjoyed a much higher profile in the monumental civil rights struggle of the 1960s were it not for concerns about his personal and political past. As a consequence, he worked out of the glare of the spotlight for much of his career. Rustin, however, will be forever remembered for his genius in organizing the August 1963 March on Washington—a mass demonstration of great majesty and dignity that captured the imagination of the American public and helped to pave the way for the passage of key civil rights legislation.

Rustin provides an insightful overview of his role in the civil rights movement in his books Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (1971) and Strategies for Freedom: The Changing Patterns of Black Protest (1976). A comprehensive profile of Rustin's life is Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen—A Biography (1997). More about Rustin's contributions toward the struggle for civil rights is in James Haskins, Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement (1997), and Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1965 (1998). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 25 Aug. 1987).

Don Amerman