Bayard Rustin at 100

Kenneth Crab Mar 24, 2012

March 17, 2012 would have marked the 100th birthday of Bayard Rustin, one of 20th century America's boldest social activists, most masterful strategists of peaceful protest, and brilliant organizers. Thanks to Rustin, civil disobedience became a powerful catalyst for political change in this country. Without Rustin as his steadfast mentor, adviser and confidant, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have understood the impact of direct action, which defined his civil rights leadership. Without Rustin as a trailblazer, the Occupy movement would not have come about, even though most of its participants probably don't know his name.

While King's birthday is now a national holiday, Rustin by and large languishes in historical limbo because of his openness about being gay. As recently as 2002, fifteen years after his death, controversy erupted in Rustin's home town of West Chester, PA, when a proposal to name a high school after him was met with reluctance to pay tribute to an erstwhile communist and alleged pervert. Eventually, the school board squelched this prejudice, but the incident epitomized how ignorance, insecurity and fear continue to overshadow Rustin's career as an important public figure. Not only did his discreet yet unapologetic experience of homosexuality as something perfectly natural prove tantamount to an amazingly strong and confident sense of self, but the preference of his attractions across the color line gave him the intuitive disregard of racial boundaries that would inform his political activism.

The two individuals who, as surrogate parents, exerted the most influence on Rustin, were his grandmother Julia, who raised him as her own son, and the great black labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Significantly, both were accepting of Rustin's sexual orientation insofar that they didn't consider it a big deal, let alone an impediment to the fruition of his talents. Julia was by all accounts an exceptionally progressive and enlightened woman. She raised Rustin according to Quaker beliefs and instilled in him the values of tolerance, pacifism and community service. He also grew up within the sphere of her involvement – as a member of the fledgling NAACP – in the black struggle against discrimination. Rustin started working with Randolph a few years after he moved to Harlem in 1937, and admired the older man's vision of dignity and liberation, on the one hand, and employment and education, on the other, as inextricable goals for the black worker. “Randolph thus stands out,” Rustin wrote in 1969, “among the Negro leaders of the twentieth century as a man of both principled idealism and practical accomplishment.”

Ever ahead of his time, Rustin declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to perform military service in 1942, long before such an act of dissent was a popular or safe thing to do. (He spent three years in federal prison as a result.) He coordinated and took part in the Journey of Reconciliation – a mission to defy Jim Crow by having interracial teams of passengers on Southbound buses – in 1947,  anticipating Rosa Parks and the Freedom Rides. (Following his arrest, he labored on a North Carolina chain gang for twenty-two days.) With the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rustin achieved his glorious day in the sun, setting the standard and laying out the template for all major protest rallies to come. On August 28, 1963, under the auspices of ten civil rights, religious and labor leaders (the “Big Ten”), he mobilized and brought together 250000 marchers on the Mall – unofficial, less conservative estimates suggested a number closer to half a million. Without the help of information technology like fax machines, cell phones and computers, let alone the internet, but with a dedicated group of volunteers, he pulled off an unprecedented logistic and organizational feat, showing the capital and the world how a mass movement for social equality and economic justice had gathered unstoppable force.

Like Randolph, the original dreamer and director of the March, Rustin consistently aimed to extend the concerted effort behind individual campaigns into ongoing coalitions with long-term programs. After his initial collaboration with King on the 1956 Montogomery bus boycott, he worked with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison to consolidate the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) into a permanent base for his protégé to operate from, which led to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King went to Montgomery a young, local preacher, and Rustin opened up the world to him through a wealth of knowledge, experience and connections. Over twenty years, he had traveled the country extensively, lecturing and conducting workshops on behalf of his mentor A. J. Muste and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), as well as its race relations-focused offshoot, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He was executive secretary of the War Resisters League (WRL) and had visited Africa and India, where he obtained profound insight into Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

If King served his apprenticeship with Rustin during the bus boycott, it also marked the first of numerous instances when Rustin withdrew from the stage as soon as the spotlights hit – he was smuggled out of town in the trunk of a car – in order to avoid exposing King to any scandalous allegations he was liable to attract. Often other more or less prominent figures in King's entourage, fueled by self-interest, jealousy or homophobia, pressured him to sever ties with Rustin, and often King's reaction showed little backbone or loyalty. (This was never more the case than in 1960, when he gave in to a ludicrous threat from Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to leak rumors about a gay affair between him and Rustin. With trademark humor, Rustin would later repudiate the absurdity of Powell's charge by asserting that Dr. King was not at all his type, but the incident proved particularly hurtful.) Consequently, the range and impact of Rustin's contribution to King's rise as a national leader have been all but excised from the history books, but it is a matter of record that he stood by King throughout, offering strategic guidance, organizing events (he once confided that King couldn't organize vampires to go to a bloodbath) and providing a speaking platform – most memorably for the “I Have a Dream” speech that capped the March on Washington.

Although the March left Rustin in a position of prominence, his attempts to forge a lasting alliance between the Big Ten foundered in the face of factionalism and rivalry. The Saturday Evening Post poignantly branded him “The Lone Wolf of Civil Rights” for his lack of solid affiliation with any specific group, which led Randolph to support the establishment of Rustin's own, independent civil rights organization, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, in 1965. The Institute's agenda of coalition-building – especially with the labor movement – as well as economic and political reform aligned with the argument Rustin expressed in his seminal essay “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” where he advocated achieving change on an institutional level rather than just converting hearts and minds. “It is institutions – social, political, and economic institutions – which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments,” he wrote. “Let these institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.” Rustin warned against the sentimental tokenism of white liberals and black militants alike, dressing their 'activism' down to “a matter of posture and volume and not of effect.”

From the mid-to-late sixties, the fortune of Rustin's projects and goals fluctuated with that of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose policies on race – implemented in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – and against poverty he both championed and pushed for more. (Rustin's Freedom Budget – a ten-year-plan geared toward redistributing wealth through the creation of jobs – trumped the administration's War on Poverty in ambition and scope.) As Johnson's popularity waned with mounting disapproval of the Vietnam War, Rustin refrained from decisively speaking out against American military intervention. Taking a perhaps all too pragmatic stand, he alienated himself from many former allies among pacifists and black radicals, who attacked him for being a sell-out.

After the assassination of King and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, Rustin gradually stepped back from the cutting edge of the struggle for democracy and freedom. His commitment to integration over separatism never wavered, though, and he devoted his last fifteen years to diplomatic and humanitarian causes around the world, especially the fate of refugees. In a fairy tale twist, he also fell in love with Walter Naegle, now the custodian of his legacy, who encouraged him to get involved in the gay movement. (Rustin's essays “From Montgomery to Stonewall” and “The New 'Niggers' Are Gays” are two key reflections of his views.)

In trying to sum up a life as rich and complex as Bayard Rustin's in 1500 words, one inevitably ends up feeling neglectful. Handsome, elegant and debonair in appearance, he was a prodigious athlete and singer in his student days, a fearless visionary with a passion for antiques, a lucid writer and debater gifted with a rapier wit and incisive presence of mind, and an abiding inspiration to young people. Time on Two Crosses (eds. Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise) and I Must Resist (ed. Michael Long), two collections of Rustin's writings (the former articles, the latter correspondence), put his story into fascinating, insightful perspective. Among a handful of biographies, John D'Emilio's Lost Prophet is the most thorough and nuanced. The documentary Brother Outsider, directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates, traces a thoughtful, well-crafted portrait of Rustin, and its website,, features a list of events around the country celebrating his centennial, as well as a lot of additional information, references and links.

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