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Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross, before demonstration.
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Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin
For more information about Bayard Rustin, check out John D'Emilio's book, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.
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Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin
Read Rustin's writings in the book Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, by Devon Carbado and Donald Weise.
By Melinda Pilkinton, Ph.D., LCSW
“For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.”
President Barack Obama, November 20, 2013, Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) is not a well-known figure in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. His skills as an organizer, planner, and leader were highly valued by prominent leaders in the Civil Rights Movement; yet, Rustin was relegated to the background during the Movement. He was a gay man, which he guarded from public scrutiny. He and other leaders feared that his sexual orientation would diminish the progression of the movement and reflect badly on the image of Civil Rights leaders.
Rustin was brought up with well-respected grandparents who exposed him to social justice from an early age. Julia Rustin, his grandmother, was one of the first members of the NAACP after it was founded (D’Emilio, 2003). From a young age, Bayard was exposed to the influences of his grandparents as they helped others, including using their home as a way station for the “Great Migration” of African Americans who left the south to escape Jim Crow laws (D’Emilio, 2003).
Rustin was a gifted athlete and scholar, which later made him indispensable as an organizer and writer. He was a talented vocalist and a well-known poet within his high school. Known to be a personable young man, he had many friends both Black and White (D’Emilio, 2003). He was able to attend college when he received a scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio. However, Rustin did not graduate. His departure from Wilberforce was possibly due to his sexuality, although no clear evidence exists (D’Emilio, 2003, 29).
Rustin discussed his sexuality (in an oblique fashion) with his grandmother, although he never admitted openly to her that he was gay (Miletta, 2006). After Rustin left Wilberforce, Julia warned Rustin that he should associate only with those “who [had] good reputations,” further stating, “people who do not have as much to lose as you have can be very careless” (D’Emilio, 2003, 29). What he could not know at that time was the impact that his sexuality would have on his life’s work.
As a young person who had been exposed to Quaker meetings, anti-war sentiment, stories of the Underground Railroad, and Civil Rights leaders, Rustin was concerned about inequities within society (D’Emilio, 2003; Perlstein, 2007). His values concerning human rights and concepts of nonviolence were rooted in the Quaker belief system. These beliefs led to his studies of non-violence in India with Mahatma Gandhi’s son in 1948 (Carbado & Weise, 2004). In the following years, his knowledge and ability to teach others about these beliefs were critical to the Movement.
Rustin’s knowledge of and commitment to passive resistance (as Gandhi termed it) and non-violence was tested throughout the Civil Rights Era. When he challenged segregation by refusing to give up a bus seat, he was beaten savagely. He endured verbal abuse for his passive protests. He was arrested and sentenced to a chain gang for violating Jim Crow laws (Carbado & Weise, 2004; Haughton, 1999). Rustin was true to his values of non-violence throughout his life, at whatever the cost.
Rustin experienced embarrassing moments. He was arrested for violating a morals law in Pasadena, California in 1953. Rustin, age 41, had spoken to the American Association of University Women (Carbado & Weise, 2004, 1163). Afterwards, he wandered the streets until about 3:00 a.m. when he was approached by some White men in a car. According to the testimony, Rustin offered to perform oral sex on the three men in the car, which they accepted. When police approached the parked car, they arrested all three men for public lewdness (Carbado & Weise, 2004, 1163; Cassuto, 2006, D’Emilio, 2003, 191). All of the men were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 60 days in jail (Cassuto, 2006; D’Emilio, 2003, 191). Rustin was “broken” to be in jail for something other than his beliefs about civil rights (Carbado & Weise, 2004, 1163). That particular arrest was followed by other arrests for public solicitation (Allman, 2008; D’Emilio, 2003, 173). During the time period (mid 20th century), every state had criminal laws against homosexuality (D’Emilio, 2003). Rustin’s arrests in California on a morals charge and in New York on public solicitation were typical for gay men of the time; if they were observed engaged sexually in public, then trouble came their way. Rustin was arrested many times for his sexuality, effectively eliminating any possibility of public recognition for the work that he did for the Civil Rights movement (D’Emilio, 2003; Lewis, 2009, 89), and excluding him from his rightful place at the center stage of the movement. In spite of his enormous strengths, he was not able to escape the shadow placed on him by those in the movement who disapproved of his sexuality.
Rustin was aware that the attention brought by his arrests would negatively affect the movement; indeed, he was threatened to have these incidents revealed. For example, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., threatened to link Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin as romantic partners (D’Emilio, 2003; Greene, 2006). Rustin was reported to be Dr. King’s “closest friend and confidante” (Marable, 2008) and his “key adviser” (Cassuto, 2006), but there is no evidence that a sexual relationship existed between them. Prior to the March on Washington, innuendo and rumors were perpetuated by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Glenn, 2004) and among Dr. King’s advisors (Cassuto, 2006). Nevertheless, Rustin persevered from the sidelines. His influence was massive and his “signature” is evident, but little recognition was given for Rustin’s work in the Movement.
Roy Finch referred to him as a “four-way outsider,” which was explained as “Black, an artist, a homosexual,” and a “pacifist-Quaker” (Kurtz, 2005). Rustin was an outlier compared to other Movement leaders and could not survive public scrutiny of his personal life.
Rustin’s role in the organization of the 1963 March on Washington is legendary. He was the coordinator of travel, finances, and details for A. Philip Randolph, Chair of the March. Colleagues described Rustin’s organization as phenomenally efficient (Lee & Diaz, 2007). Rustin sent four succinct organizational memos; the first announced the March, the second presented information about non-violence, the third discussed transportation, and the fourth outlined methods for a safe return trip home for the protestors (Lee & Diaz, 2007). That this feat was accomplished at all is amazing, but it is difficult to visualize without the benefit of modern technology and while under surveillance by the federal government (Branch, 1988, 861).
Rustin’s organization of the March on Washington included an army of volunteers. Riverside Church in New York prepared 80,000 cheese sandwich lunches to provide the crowd with food (Branch, 1988, 873). Four thousand volunteer marshals provided security and crowd control (Branch, 1988, 873). Rustin also planned for first aid stations, water stations, and 200 toilet facilities (Branch, 1988, 873).
As the protestors arrived in Washington for the March, crowd management was challenging. Rustin advanced the program nearly one hour in order to accommodate the attendees (Branch, 1988, 881). As problems with speakers unfolded, Rustin mediated conflicts. He inserted Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (who was not scheduled to speak) into the events and assisted in mediating a dispute about the content of John Lewis’ speech (Branch, 1988, 875-881) with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders, who felt that other leaders (NAACP, for example) were not forceful enough in demanding civil rights (Branch, 1988, 879).
There was criticism of Rustin’s planning. Some leaders thought he relegated Dr. King to speak last at the March because of a rift in their relationship (Carbado & Weise, 2004). Rustin had been approached by other speakers for the event asking Rustin not to put them on the program following Dr. King; they were intimidated by Dr. King’s oratory skills and suspected that the speeches would be over as far as the crowd was concerned once Dr. King spoke (Carbado & Weise, 2004). This is an example of the criticism directed toward Rustin; others assumed conflict where there was none. Dr. King and Rustin had been estranged for about three years at the time of the March, primarily because of Adam Clayton Powell’s threat to blackmail Dr. King (Branch, 1988, 329, 847). However, Rustin was not influenced by this breach of their association; he was organizing something much bigger than two men and their personal conflicts.
In the years following the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin distanced himself from civil rights organizations (Perlstein, 2007). He linked with the labor movement and used his well-honed organizational skills for other causes, although this decision separated him further from Black activists (Carbado & Weise, 2004; Perlstein, 2007). The March on Washington was the peak of Rustin’s career as a peaceful activist. Arguably, he orchestrated the most influential and widely known demonstration of the American Civil Rights movement in the shadows of other greats: A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and others. In recent years, credit has been given to Rustin’s extraordinary skills. He has been called the “most accomplished organizer of the civil rights movement” (Kurtz, 2005). Upon Rustin’s death, Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican president, praised the socialist activist:
“We mourn the loss of Bayard Rustin, a great leader in the struggle for civil rights in the United States and for human rights throughout the world… Though a pacifist, he was a fighter to the finish. That is why over the course of his life he won the undying love of all who cherish freedom” (Reagan, 1987).
Allman, J. (2008). Nuclear imperialism and the Pan-African struggle for peace and freedom: Ghana, 1959-1962, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture & Society, 10 (2), 83-102.
Branch, T. (1988). Parting the waters: America in the King years 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Carbado, D. W. & Weise, D. (2004). The civil rights identity of Bayard Rustin, Texas Law Review, 82 (5), 1133-1195.
Cassuto, L. (2006). The silhouette and the secret self: Theorizing biography in our times, American Quarterly, 58 (4), 1249-1261.
D’Emilio, J. (2003). Lost prophet: The life and times of Bayard Rustin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Glenn, D. (2004). From protest to…. Dissent, 126 -131.
Greene, C. (2006). What’s sex got to do with it: Gender and the New Black Freedom Movement Scholarship, Feminist Studies, 32 (1), 163-183.
Haughton, B. (1999). Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Leader. Quaker Studies. Retrieved 28 October 2013 from http://www.quakerinfo.com/quak_br.shtml
Kurtz, J. B. (2005). Bearing witness still: Recovering the language and the lives that made the Civil Rights Movement move, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 8, (2), 327-354.
Lee, S. S. & Diaz, A. (2007) “I was the one percenter”: Manny Diaz and the beginnings of a Black-Puerto Rican coalition. Journal of American Ethnic History, 26 (3), 52-80.
Lewis, A. B. (2009). The shadows of youth: The remarkable journey of the civil rights generation. New York: Hill and Wang Publishers.
Marable, M. (2008). The crisis of Black leadership: Introduction to an international symposium, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, 10 (1), 1-4.
Miletta, A. (2006). Brother Outsider: The life of Bayard Rustin, 19 (2), 63-64.
Perlstein, D. (2007). The dead end of despair: Bayard Rustin, the 1968 New York school crisis and the struggle for racial justice, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, 31, (2), 89-121.
Reagan, R. (1987, August 25). Statement on the Death of Bayard Rustin. The Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=34735#axzz2j3ATc9F1 (accessed 28 Oct 2013).
The Wall Street Journal (2013, November 22). Transcript of Obama’s remarks at the Medal of Freedom ceremony. Retrieved from: http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/11/20/transcript-of-obamas-remarks-at-the-medal-of-freedom-ceremony/
Bayard Rustin: Biography. (n.d.) Retrieved May 22, 2010 from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USArustin.htm.
Carbado, D. W. & Weise, D. (2003). Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
Kates, N. (Producer) & Singer, B. (Director). (2003). Brother Outsider [Motion picture]. USA: Public Broadcasting System.
Naegle, W. (n.d.). About Bayard Rustin. http://www.rustin.org
Melinda Pilkinton, Ph.D., LCSW, is Associate Professor and Program Director of the Social Work Program at Mississippi State University.