Getting to Know Bayard Rustin

Who is Bayard Rustin?  Bayard Rustin is one of the hidden treasures of 20th-century U.S. history.  

People who have heard of Rustin tend to know him because of his role in the 1963 March on Washington, made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rustin was the behind-the-scenes organizer of the event. Because of his skills as an organizer, in just seven weeks he was able to pull together an event that drew 250,000 people to Washington DC. It was the largest racial justice protest in U.S. history. The event was peaceful, the speeches powerful, and the demands far-reaching.  The March made front-page newspaper headlines across the country. Rustin was featured on the cover of Life Magazine, one of the most popular weeklies in the U.S.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

But, organizing the March on Washington is just the tip of the iceberg of Bayard Rustin’s accomplishments. An activist from the time he was in high school, Rustin participated in protests for social and economic justice for over fifty years.  Never a “single issue” activist, he campaigned for world peace and against nuclear weapons, against racism and inequality, for the rights of workers to form unions, and for a living wage for all working people.  And, he managed to do all this as a gay man during the decades when the medical profession considered LGBT people mentally ill, when all the states criminalized same-sex love, and when most religions considered it sinful.

What are some of his great accomplishments? While still a young man, Rustin studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi of India. He became a believer in the power of active nonviolence as the most effective and most moral way to oppose evil and fight for justice. He was more responsible than anyone for bringing the ideas and tactics of Gandhian nonviolent resistance to the African American freedom struggle in the United States. When Dr. King was still a young minister and leading his first protests in Montgomery, Alabama, Rustin traveled there and tutored Dr. King in Gandhi’s philosophy and methods. He wrote the plan for creating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that Dr. King led and that was so important in the fight against racial segregation and discrimination. Rustin devoted himself to building Dr. King’s standing as a recognized national leader. The March on Washington was the high point of more than twenty years of movement building by Rustin.

Bayard Rustin was also a pacifist who believed that war would never bring peace and that, without peace, nations would never achieve racial and economic justice for all. After the start of the nuclear age in 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Rustin rallied people to demonstrate against the testing of nuclear weapons. He organized protests in North America, Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific. By the early 1960s, the protests were so widespread that world leaders agreed to ban the testing of nuclear weapons above ground.

Rustin also believed that civil rights laws would never be meaningful if poverty remained widespread. He persuaded important civil rights organizations to campaign for increasing the minimum wage. He proposed a “Freedom Budget” that would have helped to redistribute wealth and opportunity more fairly in the United States. Rustin was also a wise strategist for change.  He knew that protests and demonstrations were important and essential.  But he also knew that they were not enough.  In his best known political manifesto, “From Protest to Politics,” he argued that activists needed to get involved in the political system and elect their own, so that freedom fighters would also be lawmakers and policymakers.

Bayard Rustin lived long enough to experience the effects of the Stonewall rebellion and the rise of the “gay liberation” movement. Late in life, he began to campaign for LGBT rights.  He helped win passage of an anti-discrimination law in New York City. During the terrible AIDS crisis of the 1980s, he saw the campaign for LGBT rights as the leading edge of the freedom struggle in the U.S.

Rustin never “retired” from activism. “Freedom is never a final act,” he often declared. He encouraged activists to see themselves as “angelic troublemakers” who would call attention to injustice and win over their opponents. As I said at the beginning of this post, Bayard Rustin is one of the hidden treasures of 20th-century U.S. history.  Let’s help make him, his ideas, and his activism less hidden and better known.

John D’Emilio is the author of a biography of Bayard Rustin:  Lost Prophet:  The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin