Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987) was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, pacifism and non-violence, and gay rights. “Bayard” is pronounced to rhyme with hired.
In the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Rustin practiced nonviolence. He was a leading activist of the early 1947–1955 civil-rights movement, helping to initiate a 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge with civil disobedience racial segregation on interstate busing. He recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s leadership, and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King’s leadership; Rustin promoted the philosophy of nonviolence and the practices of nonviolent resistance, which he had observed while working with Gandhi’s movement in India. Rustin became a leading strategist of the civil rights movement from 1955–1968. He was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was headed by A. Philip Randolph, the leading African-American labor-union president and socialist. Rustin also influenced young activists, such as Tom Kahn and Stokely Carmichael, in organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
After the passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964–1965, Rustin focused attention on the economic problems of working-class and unemployed African Americans, suggesting that the civil-rights movement had left its period of “protest” and had entered an era of “politics”, in which the Black community had to ally with the labor movement. Rustin became the head of the AFL–CIO‘s A. Philip Randolph Institute, which promoted the integration of formerly all-white unions and promoted the unionization of African Americans. Rustin became an honorary chairperson of the Socialist Party of America in 1972, before it changed its name to Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA); Rustin acted as national chairman of SDUSA during the 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. He was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti when he died in 1987.
Rustin was a gay man who had been arrested for a homosexual act in 1953. Homosexuality was criminalized through the 1960s and stigmatized through the 1970s. Rustin’s sexuality, or at least his embarrassingly public criminal charge, was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders. Rustin was attacked as a “pervert” or “immoral influence” by political opponents from segregationists to Black power militants, and from the 1950s through the 1970s. In addition, his pre-1941 Communist Party affiliation was controversial. To avoid such attacks, Rustin served only rarely as a public spokesperson. He usually acted as an influential adviser to civil-rights leaders. In the 1970s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was raised by his maternal grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin. Julia Rustin was a Quaker, although she attended her husband’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were frequent guests in the Rustin home. With these influences in his early life, in his youth Rustin campaigned against racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws.
In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce University, a historically black college (HBCU) in Ohio operated by the AME Church. As a student at Wilberforce, Rustin was active in a number of campus organizations, including the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He left Wilberforce in 1936 before taking his final exams, and later attended Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania).
After completing an activist training program conducted by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Rustin moved to Harlem in 1937 and began studying at City College of New York. There he became involved in efforts to defend and free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men in Alabama who were accused of raping two white women. He joined the Young Communist League in 1936. Soon after coming to New York City, he became a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Rustin was an accomplished tenor vocalist, which earned him admissions to both Wilberforce University and Cheyney State Teachers College with music scholarships. In 1939 he was in the chorus of a short-lived musical that starred Paul Robeson. Blues singer Josh White was also a cast member, and later invited Rustin to join his band, “Josh White and the Carolinians”. This gave Rustin the opportunity to become a regular performer at the Café Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, which widened his social and intellectual contacts.
Following directions from the Soviet Union, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and its members were active in the civil rights movement for African Americans. Following Stalin’s “theory of nationalism”, the CPUSA once favored the creation of a separate “nation” for negroes, to be located in the American Southeast. In 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin ordered the CPUSA to abandon civil rights work and focus supporting U.S. entry into World War II. Disillusioned, Rustin began working with members of the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas, particularly, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; another socialist mentor was the pacifist A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
The three of them proposed a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces. Meeting with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office, Randolph respectfully and politely, but firmly, told President Roosevelt that Negroes would march in the capital unless desegregation occurred. To prove their good faith, the organizers canceled the planned march after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act), which banned discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies.
Rustin traveled to California to help protect the property of Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned in internment camps. Impressed with Rustin’s organizational skills, Muste appointed him as FOR’s secretary for student and general affairs.
Rustin was also a pioneer in the movement to desegregate interstate bus travel. In 1942 he boarded a bus in Louisville, bound for Nashville, and sat in the second row. A number of drivers asked him to move to the back, but Rustin refused. The bus was stopped by police 13 miles north of Nashville and Rustin was arrested. He was beaten and taken to the police station, but was released uncharged.
In 1942, Rustin assisted two other staffers, George Houser and James L. Farmer, Jr., and activist Bernice Fisher as they formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Rustin was not a direct founder but was “an uncle of CORE,” Farmer and Houser said later. CORE was conceived as a pacifist organization based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau. It was modeled after Mohandas Gandhi‘s non-violent resistance against British rule in India.
As declared pacifists who refused induction into the military, Rustin, Houser, and other members of FOR and CORE were convicted of violating the Selective Service Act. From 1944 to 1946, Rustin was imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, where he organized protests against segregated dining facilities. During his incarceration, Rustin also organized FOR’s Free India Committee. After his release from prison, he was frequently arrested for protesting against British colonial rule in India and Africa.
Just before a trip to Africa while college secretary of the FOR, Rustin recorded a 10-inch LP for the Fellowship Records label. He sang spirituals and Elizabethan songs, accompanied on the harpsichord by Margaret Davison.
Influence on the Civil Rights Movement
Rustin and Houser organized the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. This was the first of the Freedom Rides to test the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel (Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia). Rustin and CORE executive secretary George Houser recruited a team of fourteen men, divided equally by race, to ride in pairs through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The NAACP opposed CORE’s Gandhian tactics as too meek. Participants in the Journey of Reconciliation were arrested several times. Arrested with Jewish activist Igal Roodenko, Rustin served twenty-two days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation.
In 1948, Rustin traveled to India to learn techniques of nonviolent civil resistance directly from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. The conference had been organized before Gandhi’s assassination earlier that year. Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin met with leaders of Ghana‘s and Nigeria‘s independence movements.
Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California in 1953 for homosexual activity with two other men in a parked car. Originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of “sex perversion” (as consensual sodomy was officially referred to in California then) and served 60 days in jail. This was the first time that his homosexuality had come to public attention. He had been and remained candid about his sexuality, although homosexuality was still criminalized throughout the United States. After his conviction, he was fired from FOR. He became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League.
Rustin served as an unidentified member of the American Friends Service Committee‘s task force to write “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” published in 1955. This was one of the most influential and widely commented upon pacifist essays in the United States. Rustin had wanted to keep his participation quiet, as he believed that his known sexual orientation would be used by critics as an excuse to compromise the 71-page pamphlet when it was published. It analyzed the Cold War and the American response to it, and recommended non-violent solutions.
Rustin took leave from the War Resisters League in 1956 to advise Martin Luther King Jr. on Gandhian tactics. King was organizing the public transportation boycott in Montgomery, Alabama known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. According to Rustin, “I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King’s view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the boycott began. In other words, Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns.” Rustin convinced King to abandon the armed protection, including a personal handgun.
The following year, Rustin and King began organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Many African-American leaders were concerned that Rustin’s sexual orientation and past Communist membership would undermine support for the civil rights movement. U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was a member of the SCLC’s board, forced Rustin’s resignation from the SCLC in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin’s morals charge in Congress. Although Rustin was open about his sexual orientation and his conviction was a matter of public record, the events had not been discussed widely outside the civil rights leadership.
March on Washington
Despite shunning from some civil rights leaders,
[w]hen the moment came for an unprecedented mass gathering in Washington, Randolph pushed Rustin forward as the logical choice to organize it.
A few weeks before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963, Senator Strom Thurmond railed against Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual,” and had the entire Pasadena arrest file entered in the record. Thurmond also produced an FBI photograph of Rustin talking to King while King was bathing, to imply that there was a same-sex relationship between the two. Both men denied the allegation of an affair.
He was instrumental in organizing the march. He drilled off-duty police officers as marshals, bus captains to direct traffic, and scheduled the podium speakers. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rachelle Horowitz were aides.
Despite King’s support, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins did not want Rustin to receive any public credit for his role in planning the march. Nevertheless, he did become well known. On September 6, 1963, Rustin and Randolph appeared on the cover of Life magazine as “the leaders” of the March.
After the March on Washington, Rustin organized the New York City School Boycott. When Rustin was invited to speak at the University of Virginia in 1964, school administrators tried to ban him, out of fear that he would organize another school boycott there.
From Protest to Politics
With Tom Kahn, Rustin wrote an influential article called “From protest to politics” that analyzed the changing economy and its implications for American Negroes. Rustin wrote that the rise of automation would reduce the demand for low-skill high-paying jobs, which would jeopardize the position of the urban Negro working class, particularly in northern states.
The needs of the Negro community demanded a shift in political strategy, where Negroes would need to strengthen their political alliance with mostly white unions and other organizations (churches, synagogues, etc.) to pursue a common economic agenda. It was time to move from protest to politics, wrote Rustin.
A particular danger facing the Negro community was the chimera of identity politics, particularly the rise of “Black power” which Rustin dismissed as a fantasy of middle-class Negroes that repeated the political and moral errors of previous black nationalists, while alienating the white allies needed by the Negro community. Rustin’s analysis of the economic problems of the Negro community was widely influential.
Influence on William Julius Wilson
Rustin’s analysis was supported by the later research by William Julius Wilson. Wilson documented an increase in inequality within the Black community, following educated Blacks moving into white suburbs and following the decrease of demand for low-skill labor, as industry declined in the Northern USA. Such economic problems were not being addressed by a civil rights leadership focused on “affirmative action“, a policy benefiting the truly advantaged within the Black community. Wilson’s criticism of the neglect of working-class and poor African Americans by civil rights organizations led to his being mistaken for a conservative, despite his having identified himself as a Rustin style social democrat. Wilson has served on the advisory board of Social Democrats, USA.
Labor movement: Unions and social democracy
Rustin increasingly worked to strengthen the labor movement, which he saw as the champion of empowerment for the Negro community and for economic justice for all Americans. He contributed to the labor movement’s two sides, economic and political, through support of labor unions and social-democratic politics.
He was the founder and became the Director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which coordinated the AFL-CIO’s work on civil rights and economic justice. He became a regular columnist for the AFL-CIO newspaper.
On the political side of the labor movement, Rustin increased his visibility as a leader of the American social democracy. He became a national co-chairman of the Socialist Party of America in early 1972. In December 1972, when the Socialist Party changed its name to Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA) by a vote of 73-34, Rustin continued to serve as national co-chairman, along with Charles S. Zimmerman of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). In his opening speech to the December 1972 Convention, Co-Chairman Rustin called for SDUSA to organize against the “reactionary policies of the Nixon Administration”; Rustin also criticized the “irresponsibility and élitism of the ‘New Politics’ liberals”. In later years, Rustin served at the national chairman of SDUSA.
Like many liberals and socialists, Rustin supported President Lyndon Johnson‘s containment policy against communism, while making criticisms of the conduct of this policy. In particular, to maintain independent labor unions and political opposition in Vietnam, Rustin and others gave critical support to U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, while calling for a negotiated peace treaty and democratic elections. Rustin criticized the conduct of the war, particularly the bombing of civilians in North Vietnam.
During the early 1970s Rustin served on the board of trustees of the University of Notre Dame.
The plight of Jews in the Soviet Union reminded Rustin of the struggles that blacks faced in the United States. Soviet Jews faced many of the same forms of discrimination in employment, education and housing, while also being prisoners within their own country by being denied the chance to emigrate by Soviet authorities.  After seeing the injustice that Soviet Jews faced, Rustin became a leading voice in advocating for the movement of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel. He worked closely with Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, who introduce legislation that tied trade relations with the Soviet Union to their treatment of Jews.
Human rights: Gay rights
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House. He also testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill. In 1986, he gave a speech “The New Niggers Are Gays,” in which he asserted,
Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.
Death and beliefs
Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a perforated appendix. An obituary in the New York Times reported, “Looking back at his career, Mr. Rustin, a Quaker, once wrote: ‘The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.'”
Despite the fact that he played such an important role in the civil rights movement, Rustin “faded from the shortlist of well-known civil rights lions,” in large part because of public discomfort with his sexual orientation. However, the 2003 documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize nominee, and the March 2012 centennial of Rustin’s birth have contributed to some renewed recognition.
- According to Daniel Richman, former clerk for United States Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, Marshall’s friendship with Rustin and Rustin’s openness about his homosexuality played a significant role in Marshall’s dissent from the court’s 5-4 decision upholding the constitutionality of state sodomy laws in the later overturned 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick.
- The Bayard Rustin Educational Complex located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan is named for him.
- Bayard Rustin High School is located in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania.
- Bayard Rustin Library at the Affirmations Gay/Lesbian Community Center in Ferndale, Michigan.
- Bayard Rustin Social Justice Center in Conway, Arkansas.
- Biographical feature of Bayard Rustin in the movie Out of the Past
- In July 2007, with the permission of the Estate of Bayard Rustin, a group of San Francisco Bay Area African American LGBT community leaders formed the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition (BRC), to promote greater participation in the electoral process, advance civil and human rights issues, and promote the legacy of Mr. Rustin.
- Bayard Rustin Center for LGBTQA Activism, Awareness and Reconciliation at Guilford College, a Quaker school. The center’s vision and mission honor and continue the legacy of Bayard Rustin. Formerly the Queer and Allied Resource Center, the March 2011 rededication was with the permission of the Estate of Bayard Rustin and featured a keynote address by social justice activist Mandy Carter.
- A Pennsylvania State Historical Marker is placed at Lincoln and Montgomery Avenues, West Chester, Pennsylvania, commemorating his accomplishments, on the grounds of Henderson High School where he attended.