As some of you may know, at university I’ve involved myself in a bit of activism. So for my next blog I really wanted to write about someone involved in social justice and civil rights. Bayard Rustin was the first name to come to mind. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s not that surprising really: too often in history he is relegated to simply the organiser of the March on Washington because of his sexuality. Yet his role in civil rights is undeniably extensive and worthy of note.
Bayard was born in Pennsylvania in 1912 and raised by his grandparents. His grandmother, Julia, was a member of the NAACP and leaders of the organisation like W.E.B. Du Bois were frequent guests in his childhood home. It is with this upbringing that Bayard campaigned against Jim Crow laws in his youth.
In 1932, Bayard entered Wilberforce University, a historically black college which was operated by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church he was raised in due to his grandfather’s association with the church. While at university, he was active in a number of organisations including a fraternity but was expelled from Wilberforce in 1936 for organising a strike. Following this, he attended Cheyney State Teachers College. Completing an activist training program from the American Friends Service Committee, Bayard moved to Harlem in 1937, studying at City College of New York and becoming involved in efforts to defend and free the Scottsboro Boys. Bayard, during this period became a regular performer in the Café Society nightclub, due to him being an accomplished tenor vocalist, with the band Josh White and the Carolinians.
Bayard spent a period flirting with communism, affiliating himself with the Communist Party USA between 1936 and 1941, when he became disillusioned with the Communist Party due to their abandonment of civil rights work in favour of focusing upon US entry into World War II. Thus, Bayard began to work with the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. In 1941, a socialist mentor, A.J. Muste’s organisation, the Fellowship of Reconciliation hired Bayard as a race relation secretary. Between Bayard, Muste and A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, they proposed a march on Washington in 1941 to protest racial segregation in the armed forces and widespread discrimination in employment. They even met President Roosevelt in the Oval Office, cancelling the march after Roosevelt issued the Fair Employment Act which banned discrimination in defense and federal agencies.
Following this, Bayard travelled to California to help more than 120,000 Japanese Americans whose property was under threat, during their imprisonment in internment camps. Having shown off his organisational skills, Muste appointed him as the secretary for student and general affairs for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
In 1942, Bayard boarded a bus to Nashville and was asked to move to the back, according to Jim Crow laws. However Bayard refused, resulting in him being arrested, beaten and taken to the police station though he was released uncharged.
Bayard, inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and his quaker, pacifistic upbringing, helped to found the Congress of Racial Equality, though he was not a direct founder. Members of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Followship of Reconciliation, during the war were convicted of violating the Selective Service Act as declared pacifists. While incarcerated, he organised the Free India Committee for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and, following his release, protested British colonial rule in India and Africa and was often arrested for this.
In 1947 Bayard, along with George Houser, organised the first of the Freedom Rides, the Journey of Reconciliation, to test the ruling of Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, a Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Fourteen men, divided equally by race to ride in pairs through Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. While the tactics of the Journey of Reconciliation were viewed as meek, participants were arrested several times and Rustin himself was arrested in North Carolina for violating the Jim Crow laws on segregated seating. He served twenty-two days in a chain gang as a result of this.
Travelling to India in 1948, Bayard learned techniques of nonviolent civil resistance from the leaders of the Gandhian movement, though not Gandhi himself as he had been assassinated after the trip had been planned but prior to Bayard’s travels. Between 1947 and 1952, Bayard involved himself in the independence movements in Ghana and Nigeria as well as supporting South African resistance, forming the Committee to Support South African Resistance.
However, in spite of his positive impact, Bayard was fired from the Fellowship of Reconciliation as he plead guilty to sex perversion in California, having been arrested for sexual activity with another man in a parked car. He became the executive secretary for the War Resisters League, and a chapter of the American Legion in Montana made this conviction public to try to cancel his lectures in the state. He also helped write Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker’s Search for an Alternative to Violence, a powerful and influential pacifist essay which analysed the Cold War and non-violent solutions. However, he kept his participation in the essay private in order to avoid it being compromised by critics due to his sexuality.
In 1956, Bayard took leave from his role with the War Resisters League in order to advice Martin Luther King Jr. on Gandhian tactics as he was organising the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was Bayard that convinced King to abandon armed protection in favour of a nonviolent approach. Following this collaboration, King and Bayard teamed up again in 1957 to organise the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Yet Bayard was forced to resign in 1960 due to his sexual orientation, conviction and communist membership. Nevertheless, the reputation of Bayard preceded him to the extent that, when they were looking at organising a mass gathering in Washington, Bayard was asked to organise it.
The gathering itself became known as the Great March on Washington, known for Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. Yet in the weeks before, Rustin’s sexuality was once again subject of public scrutiny, this time by Senator Strom Thurmond, in order to discredit both Bayard and Martin Luther King Jr. by implying that there was a same-sex relationship between the two. Nevertheless, the march was a tremendous success. As a result Bayard became well known, even making the cover of Life Magazine, even though NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not want him to receive public credit for the march.
Following the March on Washington, Bayard was invited to co-ordinate a boycott of New York city public school to protest their apparent segregation. The largest civil rights demonstration in American history, more than 400,000 New Yorkers participated in the one-day boycott on February 3rd 1964. It was not well received by the Board of Education, so Bayard attempted a march which only had 4,000 participants and equally achieved little.
Transitioning from protest to politics, Bayard became an advisor for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) who were trying to gain recognition as the legitimate non-Jim Crow delegation. After a rift between the MFDP and the Democrats attempted to compromise between the two. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964, he advocated closer ties between the civil rights movement and the Democrats. Also in 1964, he wrote the article From Protest to Politics which foretold a future of automation, leading to a reduction in the demand for low-skilled jobs-a prophecy proven right. His goal in the article was an effort across racial lines to collaborate for common economic goals. In this period, this was Bayard’s modus operandi in this period, believing that the African-American community needed to change its political strategy by building relationships and alliances with predominantly white unions and organisations for a common economic goal, a view that was extremely influential.
He argued against identity politics like “Black Power” as it alienated white allies while repeating errors of previous black nationalists. Due to positions like this, Bayard was criticised as a sell-out by civil rights activists and former colleagues who argues he had been lured into material comforts and with this he had lost the previously radical form of activism for something altogether more professional.
Bayard began to work increasingly to strengthen the labor movement, looking for economic justice for all Americans and specifically power for the African-American community. He supported both sides of this movement, the economic and political though his support of trade unions and social-democratic politics and in fact founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute to help facilitate this. Politically, he became national co-chairman of the Socialist Party of America in 1972 and was a member of the League of Industrial Democracy from the 1960s, becoming Vice President during the 1980s. During the Post-War period, Bayard was virulently against communism, supporting Lyndon B. Johnson’s containment policy against communism. He also showed concern about communist meddling in Africa, writing the essay Africa, Soviet Imperialism and the Retreat of American Power, decrying Russian and Cuban involvement in the Angolan Civil War. He criticised President Carter for doing too little to thwart Russian and Cuban expansion throughout Africa.
Moving into international politics, Bayard became concerned about the state of Soviet Jews, comparing them to blacks in the US. Seeing their plight, he became an advocate for the movement of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel (he was also incredibly supportive of Zionism). He chaired the Commission on Rights of Soviet Jews, collecting many stories and compiling them into a report for the United Nations. He wrote articles on the subject and went to rallies, demonstrations and conferences to support. In fact, it was Bayard that worked with Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Jackson to create the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which restricted US trade with the Soviet Union in relation to its treatment of Jews.
In the 1980s, Bayard began to involve himself in the Gay Rights Movement, having been urged to by his partner Walter Naegle. In 1986, he testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill and gave a speech in which he asserted that the barometer for social change were gays rather than African-Americans. Bayard asserted that his homosexuality was not a factor which influenced his role as activist, yet nevertheless was a factor which was used to discriminate against him.
Bayard Rustin died on August 24 1987 of a perforated appendix. His standing was so monumental that President Ronald Reagan issued a statement on his legacy. His partner Walter Naegle was legally adopted by Bayard so that they could protect their unification. Walter received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Bayard posthumously in 2013 along with Tam O’Shaughnessy, the partner of Sally Ride, making them the first LGBT+ partners to accept the award for their late partners.
So, there it is: the life and times of Bayard Rustin. Hope you enjoyed reading about this incredible man!