Rustin, Bayard 1910–1987
Bayard Rustin 1910–1987
Political strategist, civil rights activist
Bayard Rustin never stood directly in the media spotlight that shone upon other black activists, but his contributions as a strategist and tactician place him among the most influential of twentieth-century civil rights leaders. In a career spanning more than five decades, Rustin worked on behalf of equal rights with a variety of organizations—including the Communist party, labor unions, and pacifist groups—and exercised a leading role in the creation of two significant civil rights organizations: the Congress of Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rustin was particularly instrumental in the development of the nonviolent protest movement that evolved from the Montgomery bus boycott associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. Although it was King who was catapulted into a position of national leadership by the boycott, it was Rustin, a man twenty years King’s senior, who provided much of the organizational know-how, political savvy, and theoretical underpinning for King’s civil rights victories.
The early years of Bayard Rustin’s life are not well chronicled. He grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in a family of nine children; the household was headed by a pair of caterers. At the age of eleven Rustin made a startling discovery: the woman he had always been told was his sister, Florence, was in fact his mother, and the couple whom he knew as his parents were actually his grandparents. His father was a West Indian man with whom Florence had a stable relationship but never married. Rustin’s grandmother was a Quaker who instilled in Rustin a sense of commitment to social justice.
Bayard Rustin was an intellectually gifted young man, but the beginning of his college career coincided with the onset of the Depression, and his family’s inability to aid him financially cut short his formal education. In 1931 he left Pennsylvania to live with a relative in New York, where his vocal talent earned him irregular work as a cafe singer in Greenwich Village. At that time strict segregation was still the rule in places of public entertainment. The only integrated social clubs in New York were operated by Communist organizers who hoped to enlist the support of blacks, and during this period Rustin became affiliated with the Communist party. To Rustin, as to many other American intellectuals in the 1930s, the Communist party offered a coherent explanation and cure for the devastating problems of economic depression and racial tension in the United States. The party was especially appealing to black
Born March 17,1910, in West Chester, PA; died of a heart attack, August 24, 1987, in New York City. Education: Wilberforce University, 1930-31; Cheyney State Normal School (now Cheyney State College), 1931-33; City College of New York, 1933-35.
Organizer, Young Communist League, 1936-41 (resigned from party, 1941); Fellowship of Reconciliation, Chicago, IL, youth secretary, 1941, race relations director, 1942-53; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), field secretary and co-founder, 1942; jailed as a conscientious objector, 1943-45; freedom rider participating in “Journey of Reconciliation” bus rides, 1947; special assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr., beginning in the mid-1950s; cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Atlanta, GA, 1957-60; co-organizer of the 1963 March on Washington; A. Philip Randolph Institute, New York City, executive director, 1964-79, chairman, 1979-87; Ratner Lecturer, Columbia University, 1974; founder, Organization for Black Americans to Support Israel, 1975.
Awards: Man of the Year Award, NAACP Pittsburgh branch, 1965; Eleanor Roosevelt Award, Trade Union Leadership Council, 1966; Liberty Bell Award, Howard University Law School, 1967; John Dewey Award, United Federation of Teachers, 1968; Family of Man Award, National Council of Churches, 1969; John F. Kennedy Award, National Council of Jewish Women, 1971; Lyndon Johnson Award, Urban League, 1974; Murray Green Award, AFL-CIO, 1980; Stephen Wise Award, Jewish Committee, 1981; John La Farge Memorial Award, Catholic Interracial Council of New York, 1981; Defender of Jerusalem Award, 1987; honorary degrees from Clark College, Montclair State College, New School for Social Research, and Brown, Harvard, Columbia, New York, and Yale universities.
Americans for its affirmation of equality between the races, and Rustin was only one of many black intellectuals to embrace its philosophy for a period of time.
Rustin joined the Young Communist League, whose leaders recognized him as a good organizer who could appeal to other young blacks; they appointed him a youth recruiter for the party. Rustin’s recruitment work took him throughout the United States to colleges and union halls where he spoke out against racial segregation. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, however, the American Communist party shifted its emphasis from the domestic to the international front and essentially halted its agitation for racial reform in the United States. When the party’s Central Committee insisted that Rustin stop his anti-segregation work, he resigned from the party.
Disillusioned but undaunted, Rustin appealed to the venerated black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph offered Rustin temporary work with his March on Washington Movement, a project targeting racial discrimination in defense industries, and he further helped Rustin by arranging a meeting with A. J. Muste, the radical reformer who headed an international pacifist organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The principles and tactics of the Christian-based FOR were familiar to the Quaker-influenced Rustin, whose abilities were quickly recognized by Muste. Rustin was hired as FOR’s youth secretary and resumed traveling throughout the country promoting the cause of nonviolent struggle for social change.
FOR’s program encompassed a broad social agenda of which pacifism was but one component. In 1942 FOR established a Department of Race Relations, with Rustin and another young black activist, James Farmer, serving as directors. One of Rustin’s first jobs was to advise a fledgling group of activists called the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality, a subgroup of FOR from the University of Chicago. From this committee emerged the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a federation of civil rights organizations with nationwide affiliates, for whom Rustin also went to work. At the heart of CORE’s philosophy was the idea of “nonviolent direct action,” an American adaptation of the principle of Satyagraha, the “soul force” exercised by Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi and his followers in their struggle for independence from Britain. Interracial in its membership, CORE’s activities focused on challenging racial discrimination in public accommodations and transportation.
Rustin’s career as a nonviolent direct activist was interrupted in 1943, when, as a conscientious objector to World War II, he chose prison over hospital duties and spent the remainder of the war in the Lewisburg Penitentiary. Upon release, he resumed activist work with both CORE and FOR, in 1947 joining a group of other courageous Freedom Riders in the first of many protest rides throughout the South. Sponsored by CORE, this “Journey of Reconciliation” aimed to test a recent U.S. Supreme Court prohibition on segregation in interstate travel. Rustin and his fellow riders were beaten and arrested, and Rustin spent twenty-two days on a North Carolina chain gang as the result of a bungled defense by NAACP lawyers.
After the war Rustin participated in India’s movement for independence from Britain, gaining an international reputation as a political strategist that took him to India to work for Gandhi’s Congress party and to Africa to assist Kwame Nkrumah, an activist for African self-rule who became the first prime minister of the Gold Coast.
Despite his international success, aspects of Rustin’s personal life threatened to cripple his effectiveness in the United States by isolating him from his political colleagues. In the Greenwich Village social circles in which Rustin traveled, it was acknowledged and accepted that he was homosexual; outside this zone of tolerance Rustin’s personal life was considered a potential liability to the political organizations for which he worked. When Rustin began to run into trouble with laws against homosexual activity, FOR chairman Muste warned him that any further such violations would cause his dismissal from the organization. Early in 1953 Rustin was arrested and convicted on morals charges in Pasadena, California. He resigned from FOR, served a thirty-day jail sentence, and returned to New York.
By the mid-1950s a grass-roots civil rights movement had begun to emerge in the South. In December of 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, sparking a bus boycott that would serve as a model for a decade of civil rights protests. The boycott soon attracted the attention of the national press and of northern civil rights activists; to Bayard Rustin, the Montgomery bus boycott represented a chance to regain his former influence by joining what appeared certain to become a national movement. In February of 1956, Rustin traveled to
Montgomery to get a firsthand look, but he did not stay long. Shortly after his arrival several local black organizers telephoned A. Philip Randolph to express their fear that Rustin’s presence in Montgomery would prove a liability to their cause. The boycott’s success might be jeopardized by association with a man whose personal life and Communist connections were vulnerable to criticism. Randolph shared their concern, and, together with other northern civil rights leaders, prevailed upon Rustin to leave Montgomery.
Rustin did not withdraw from the boycott; he merely shifted his work behind the scenes. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Montgomery movement, recognized the value of Rustin’s experience as a political organizer. King and Rustin maintained constant though long-distance contact, with Rustin ghostwriting some of King’s articles and speeches, raising money, and generally serving as liaison between the organization in Montgomery and northern activists.
The bus boycott ended successfully in December of 1956 with the arrival in Montgomery of desegregation orders from the Supreme Court. Civil rights organizers wasted no time in scheduling meetings and conferences to develop strategies for expanding the campaign to desegregate the South. Throughout 1957 Bayard Rustin was at the center of this activity, organizing conferences, writing essays for discussion, and helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that would play a central role in coming civil rights victories. The SCLC distanced itself from older and more conservative bodies such as the NAACP by advocating direct action in the pursuit of civil liberties, though always in the Gandhian tradition of nonviolence. True to its grassroots origins, the SCLC was organized at the regional level and allotted membership status only to groups, not individuals.
Rustin felt that the organizational principles of CORE had been flawed, in that its interracial composition had opened the door to domination by well-meaning white members. The new organization, he felt, must be led by southern blacks, just as the boycott had been—which left Rustin himself in an awkward situation, as he was a northern black, an outsider even in the organization he helped create. However, Rustin remained in close touch with the man most responsible for the success or failure of the SCLC, Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin encouraged the cult of personality growing around King and helped the emerging leader by briefing him for meetings, drafting speeches and press releases—in short, by giving the younger man the benefit of his experience as a political tactician and of his connections with wealthy civil rights supporters.
The potential for scandal loomed once again in the summer of 1960, when the powerful black congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to expose Rustin’s personal and political past. Rustin resigned from SCLC; he continued, however, to serve as a leading political adviser to King, and he remained influential in the SCLC’s affairs until King’s death in 1968. Indeed, it was Rustin who was chiefly responsible for the organization of one of the most important nonviolent protests in American history, the 1963 March on Washington at which King delivered his electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech.
But by 1963 Rustin had grown disillusioned with nonviolent direct action as a means of effecting change on behalf of black people. He had come to believe that it was time to move on to the political arena. Here he parted with King, who still believed in the power of mass demonstrations. In 1964 Rustin was appointed executive director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a liberal “think tank” sponsored by the AFL-CIO labor organization in the hope of developing cures for social ills. From this vantage point Rustin surveyed the violent upheavals and factionalism that soon characterized the movement for racial equality.
Despite his continued allegiance to the radical principles at the heart of his thought—which called for a total restructuring of political, economic, and social institutions—Rustin always insisted on the importance of the vote, strong labor unions, and coalition politics. To those younger blacks who advocated racial separatism, Rustin replied that without equal rights for all Americans no separatist movement could hope to maintain its political power. By the time of Rustin’s death in 1987 the goals and tactics of his political activity had undergone many changes, but his fundamental vision remained that of equal rights for all citizens in a fully democratic society.
Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, Quadrangle Books, 1971.
Strategies for Freedom: The Changing Patterns of Black Protest, Columbia University Press, 1976.
Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Fairclough, Adam, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr., University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Chicago Tribune, August 27, 1987.
Commonweal, December 1, 1972.
Journal of Southern History, February 1977.
New Leader, November 29, 1971.
New Perspectives, Winter 1985.
New Yorker, June 21, 1976.
New York Herald Tribune, July 28, 1964; August 9, 1964.
New York Times, February 4, 1964.
Political Studies, June 1978.
Saturday Evening Post, July 11, 1964.
Washington Post, August 21, 1983.
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The pacifist Bayard Rustin (1910-1987) was committed to nonviolent strategies for working toward racial equality and economic justice. He worked through a variety of groups organizing demonstrations for civil rights and for peace.
One of 12 children, Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia where the Quakers had established a colony of Black freedmen before the Civil War. Raised by his grandparents, he acquired a gourmet appreciation of fine food from his grandfather, a caterer, and a lifelong commitment to nonviolence and racial equality from his grandmother, a dedicated member of the Society of Friends and local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After graduating from West Chester High School as an honor student and three-letter star athlete, he drifted about the United States doing odd jobs and periodically studying history and literature at Cheney State Teachers College and Wilberforce University. In the mid-1930s, seeking an organization that shared his opposition to war and racism, he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). In 1938 he moved to Harlem as an organizer for the league, enrolling in the City College of New York and earning his livelihood by singing in nightclubs with Josh White and Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly").
In 1941 Rustin left the YCL and began a 12-year association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist, religious organization devoted to solving world problems through nonviolent means. As the FOR youth secretary, and then as director of its Department of Race Relations, Rustin served as an organizer for A. Philip Randolph's 1941 March on Washington. The demonstration convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which stipulated that all employers and unions with government defense contracts must cease racial discrimination and established a Committee on Fair Employment Practices to enforce the order. The following year, with James Farmer, he helped to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge Jim Crow by nonviolent direct action. A conscientious objector to military service, Rustin was imprisoned for resisting the draft in 1943 and served nearly two and a half years in the Ashland Correction Institute and Lewisburg Penitentiary.
After the end of World War II Rustin became chairman of the Free India Committee and later went to India to study the Gandhi movement's nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1947 he organized a Journey of Reconciliation to 15 cities in the South to publicize segregation in interstate transportation and to encourage African Americans to insist on the rights they had won in the courts. Arrested in North Carolina, Rustin served 22 days on a chain gang. (Two years later North Carolina abolished chain gangs.) In 1948 he directed A. Philip Randolph's Committee Against Discrimination in the Armed Forces, which helped to persuade President Harry S. Truman to issue an executive order banning racial segregation in the military.
Early in the 1950s Rustin became active in the movement of African nationalists seeking independence from European colonialism and also headed the pacifist War Resisters League. As a peace activist he mobilized the first Aldermaston march for nuclear disarmament in England and joined a ban-la-bombe march in the Sahara to protest the first French nuclear-test explosion.
Joining Martin Luther King, Jr. first in the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Rustin served for a half dozen years as a special assistant to King and played a major role in planning the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). A master logistician, Rustin organized many of the key civil rights demonstrations of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and A. Philip Randolph again turned to him to orchestrate the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963, which brought nearly a quarter of a million Americans to the Lincoln Memorial to petition for African American rights. In 1964, in the largest civil rights demonstration ever, he mobilized a boycott of the New York City public schools to protest racial imbalance. The eruption of violent race riots in the African American ghettoes of the nation and the emergence of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, however, forced Rustin from the forefront of African American protest and demonstrations.
After 1966 Rustin used his presidency of the A. Philip Randolph Institute to promote his Democratic-Socialist politics, particularly his belief that African American progress depends on a political coalition of African Americans and progressive whites united in their support of "A Freedom Budget for All Americans." This was designed to cure the basic economic ills of the nation through federal programs for full employment, the abolition of slums, and the reconstruction of the educational system. Elegant in diction and dress, with the poise and manners of an aristocrat, Rustin was a connoisseur of African art and European antiques. He was the author of Down the Line (1971), Strategies for Freedom (1976), and Which Way Out? A Way Out of the Exploding Ghetto (1967). Rustin received numerous honors, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, Liberty Bell Award, Eugene V. Debs Award, Howard University Law School J.F.K. Award, and Man of the Year Award from the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. He also chaired such notable organizations as the Social Democrats, U.S.A.; the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; and the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee.
In his nearly half a century struggle for peace, civil rights, and economic justice, Rustin was arrested more than 20 times. He never softened his principles. As late as 1980 he said, "You cannot give respectability to one terrorist group [meaning the Palestine Liberation Organization] without other groups benefiting from that respectability." Rustin died in New York City of a heart attack August 24, 1987.
Although Bayard Rustin has not yet been the subject of a full biography, many of his protest activities are chronicled in Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph (1972); August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (1973); David L. Lewis, King (1970); and Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980 (1981). His own views are best expressed in his books Which Way Out? A Way Out of the Exploding Ghetto (1967); Down the Line (1971); and Strategies for Freedom (1976). □
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Best known for his work in the civil rights movement, Rustin joined the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped conceive the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Although one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, closest advisers on nonviolence and political strategy, Rustin remained on the periphery because of his homosexuality and his ties to the Left. In the mid‐1960s, he was among few who urged King to take a political stand against the Vietnam War. Subsequently, he sought to minimize King's stance to preserve the fragile civil rights coalition.
In six decades of political activism, Rustin shifted from a racially conscious leftist to a more humanist‐oriented pacifist and advocate of coalition politics.
[See also Conscientious Objection; Pacifism; Quakers.]
Taylor Branch , Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (1988).
Jervis Anderson , Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, 1997.
Martin A. Summers
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Bayard Rustin, 1910–87, African-American civil-rights leader, b. West Chester, Pa. He attended three colleges but did not obtain a degree. A Quaker, he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector for more than two years during World War II. Devoting much of his early career to pacifist activities, he was (1941–53) on the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and headed (1953–55) the War Resisters League. In the early 1940s, Rustin also founded the New York branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, and he soon became a key figure in the struggle for African-American civil rights. As special assistant (1955–60) to Martin Luther King, Jr., he helped set up the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and, more generally, played an influential role in infusing King's movement with the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence (see Gandhi, Mohandas. Later, working in association with A. Philip Randolph, Rustin was the chief organizer of the massive 1963 March on Washington. From 1964 to 1987 he served as president of the Randolph Institute, a trade-union, educational, and civil-rights group. An openly gay man in a largely homophobic era, Rustin was usually obliged to employ his superb organizational and strategic skills behind the scenes.
See his collected writings in Down the Line (1971) and Time on Two Crosses (2003), ed. by D. W. Carbado and D. Weise; biographies by J. Anderson (1997) and J. D'Emilio (2003); studies by N. Dobrosky (1988), J. Haskins (1997), and D. Levine (1999); N. D. Kates and B. Singer, dir., Brother Outsider (documentary film, 2003).
"Rustin, Bayard." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rustin-bayard
"Rustin, Bayard." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rustin-bayard