Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester on 17th March, 1910. For the first ten years of his life he thought that Janifer Rustin and Julia Rustin were his parents. In fact they were his grandparents and his real parents were Archie Hopkins and Florence Rustin, the woman he thought was his sister. Florence was only seventeen and unmarried when she gave birth to Bayard.

Rustin was influenced by the religious and political beliefs of his grandmother, Julia Rustin. A pacifist, Julia was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and some of its leaders, such as William Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, sometimes stayed with the family while on their tours of the country.

As a young man Rustin campaigned against Jim Crow laws in West Chester. One of his school friends later said: "Some of us were ready to give up the fight and accept the status quo, but he never would. He had a strong inner spirit."

In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce University. Founded by white methodists in 1856 for the benefit of African Americans, the university was named after William Wilberforce, one of the British leaders of the campaign against the slave-trade. However, he left in 1936 without taking his final exams.

Rustin moved to Harlem and began studying at New York City College. He soon became involved in the campaign to free the nine African Americans that had been falsely convicted for raping two white women on a train. Known as the Scottsboro Case, Rustin was radicalized by what he believed was an obvious case of white racism. It was at this time (1936) that Rustin joined the American Communist Party. As Rustin later pointed out, "the communists were passionately involved in the civil rights movement so they were ready-made for me."

Baynard Rustin
Baynard Rustin

Rustin had a fine voice and sung in local folk clubs with Josh White. In September, 1939, Rustin was recruited by Leonard De Paur to appear with Paul Robeson in the Broadway musical, John Henry. However, the show was not a success and closed after a fortnight.

In 1941 Rustin met the African American trade union leader, Philip Randolph. A member of the Socialist Party, Randolph was a strong opponent of communism and as a result of his influence, Ruskin left the American Communist Party in June, 1941.

Rustin helped Philip Randolph plan a proposed March on Washington in June, 1941, in protest against racial discrimination in the armed forces. The march was called off when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in defence industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act).

Abraham Muste, executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), who had also been involved in planning the March on Washington was impressed by Rustin's organizational abilities. In September, 1941, Muste appointed Rustin as FOR's secretary for student and general affairs.

In 1942, three members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rustin, George Houser and James Farmer, founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Members of this group were pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and his theories on how to use nonviolent resistance to achieve social change. The group were also inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America.

As a pacifist, Rustin refused to serve in the armed forces. On 12th January, 1944, Rustin was arrested and charged with violating the Selective Service Act. At his trial on 17th February, he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Other members of Congress on Racial Equality, including George Houser, Igal Roodenko and James Peck, were also imprisoned during the Second World War for refusing to join the United States Army.

While serving his sentence, Rustin organized protests against segregated seating in the dinning hall. He explained his actions in a letter to E. G. Hagerman, the prison warden: "Both morally and practically, segregation is to me a basic injustice. Since I believe it to be so, I must attempt to remove it. There are three ways in which one can deal with an injustice. (a) One can accept it without protest. (b) On can seek to avoid it. (c) One can resist the injustice non-violently. To accept it is to perpetuate it."

Rustin was released from prison on 11th June, 1946. He immediately joined with George Houser in planning a campaign against segregated transport. In early 1947, CORE announced plans to send eight white and eight black men into the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. The Journey of Reconciliation, as it became known, was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Although Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was against this kind of direct action, he volunteered the service of its southern attorneys during the campaign. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department, was strongly against the Journey of Reconciliation and warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."

The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included Bayard Rustin, Igal Roodenko, George Houser, James Peck, Joseph Felmet, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.

Martin Luther
Members of the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. Left to right: Worth Randle,
Wallace Nelson, Ernest Bromley, James Peck, Igal Roodenko, Bayard Rustin,
Joseph Felmet, George Houser and Andrew Johnson.

James Peck was arrested with Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson in Durham. After being released he was arrested once again in Asheville and charged with breaking local Jim Crow laws. In Chapel Hill Peck and four other members of the team was dragged off the bus and physically assaulted before being taken into custody by the local police.

Members of the Journey of Reconciliation team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, two of the African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, were found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable. He told Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety."

The Journey of Reconciliation achieved a great deal of publicity and was the start of a long campaign of direct action by the Congress of Racial Equality. In February 1948 the Council Against Intolerance in America gave Rustin and George Houser the Thomas Jefferson Award for the Advancement of Democracy for their attempts to bring an end to segregation in interstate travel.

After the arrest of Rosa Parks in December, 1955, after she had refused to give up her seat to a white man, Martin Luther King, a pastor at the local Baptist Church, decided to organize a protest against bus segregation. It was decided that from 5th December, black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. Rustin was asked to go to Montgomery to help organize this campaign.

Martin Luther King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued. For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration and the boycott came to an end on 20th December, 1956.

Rustin was now King's main adviser and together they formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organisation was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed." Rustin was offered the job as director of SCLC but he declined as he preferred a more flexible role in the civil rights movement.

In 1963 Rustin began organizing what became known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin was able to persuade the leaders of all the various civil rights groups to participate in the planned protest meeting at the Lincoln Memorial on 28th August.

The decision to appoint Rustin as chief organizer was controversial. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was one of those who was against the appointment. He argued that being a former member of the American Communist Party made him an easy target for the right-wing press. Although Rustin had left the party in 1941, he still retained his contacts with its leaders such as Benjamin Davis.

Wilkins also feared that the fact that Rustin had been imprisoned several times for both refusing to fight in the armed forces and for acts of homosexuality, would be used against him in the days leading up to the march. However, Martin Luther King and Philip Randolph insisted that he was the best person for the job.

Wilkins was right to be concerned about a possible smear campaign against Rustin. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, had been keeping a file on Rustin for many years. An FBI undercover agent managed to take a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was having a bath. This photograph was then used to support false stories being circulated that Rustin was having a homosexual relationship with King.

This information was now passed on to white politicians in the Deep South who feared that a successful march on Washington would persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor a proposed new civil rights act. Storm Thurmond led the campaign against Rustin making several speeches where he described him as a "communist, draft dodger and homosexual".

Most newspapers condemned the idea of a mass march on Washington. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune warned that: "If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capital they will be jeopardizing their cause. The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of unconstrained violence if Congress doesn't deliver."

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28th August, 1963, was a great success. Estimates on the size of the crowd varied from between 250,000 to 400,000. Speakers included Philip Randolph (AFL-CIO), Martin Luther King (SCLC), Floyd McKissick (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Witney Young (National Urban League) and Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO). King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech.

Rustin was highly valued by the trade union movement, and when the AFL-CIO decided in 1965 to fund a new civil rights organisation, the Philip Randolph Institute, he was asked to be its leader. Named after his close friend, Philip Randolph, Rustin worked for the organization until 1979.

In his final years Rustin was active in the protests against the Vietnam War and in the gay rights movement. In 1986 he claimed: "The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated."

Bayard Rustin died in New York on 24th August, 1987.

Primary Sources

(1) Bayard Rustin, letter to his friend, Joseph Beam (21st April, 1986)

My activism did not spring from being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values instilled in me by the grandparents who reared me. Those values were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of the family are equal. The racial injustice that was present in this country during my youth was a challenge to my belief in the oneness of the human family. I worked side-by-side with many white people who held these values, some of whom gave as much, if not more, to the struggle than myself.

(2) Stephen Cary, letter to his father about Bayard Rustin (1965)

Yesterday was one of the greatest days I've had at Antioch. We had an assembly, and the speaker was Bayard Rustin. I've never heard a man speak with such controlled passion. He's emotional, but the intellectual comes first - so that you can see the arguments with the mind plus the heart.

(3) Bayard Rustin wrote an article for the Louisiana Weekly, to reply to what Thurgood Marshall had said about the Congress on Racial Equality's decision to organize the Journey of Reconciliation (1st April, 1947)

I am sure that Marshall is either ill-formed on the principles and techniques of nonviolence or ignorant of the process of social change.

Unjust social laws and patterns do not change because supreme courts deliver just decisions. One needs merely to observe the continued practice of Jim Crow in interstate travel, six months after the Supreme Court's decision, to see the necessity of resistance. Social progress comes from struggle; all freedom demands a price.

At times freedom will demand that its followers go into situations where even death is to be faced. Resistance on the buses would, for example, mean humiliation, mistreatment by police, arrest, and some physical violence inflicted on the participants.

But if anyone at this date in history believes that the "white problem," which is one of privilege, can be settled without some violence, he is mistaken and fails to realize the ends to which men can be driven to hold on to what they consider their privileges.

This is why Negroes and whites who participate in direct action must pledge themselves to non-violence in word and deed. For in this way alone can the inevitable violence be reduced to a minimum.

(4) Instructions produced by Bayard Rustin and George Houser for the Journey of Reconciliation (April, 1947)

If you are a Negro, sit in a front seat. If you are white, sit in a rear seat.

If the driver asks you to move, tell him calmly and courteously: "As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court".

If the driver summons the police and repeats his order in their presence, tell him exactly what you said when he first asked you to move.

If the police asks you to "come along," without putting you under arrest, tell them you will not go until you are put under arrest.

If the police put you under arrest, go with them peacefully. At the police station, phone the nearest headquarters of the NAACP, or one of your lawyers. They will assist you.

(5) In an interview in 1985, Bayard Rustin described his experiences in Hillsboro Prison in North Carolina.

We had chains on us when we left the prison and went out to work on the roads. We were chained to one another while we used picks and shovels. It was a very harrowing and ugly experience. People were hanged on the bars by their wrists, their feet dangling above the ground. People were put into a hole - just a hole in the ground - for two or three days if they misbehaved. No toilet, nothing. On one occasion when the guards insisted that I entertain them by dancing, I refused. They took out pistols and shot at the ground around my feet, trying to make me dance.

(6) Bayard Rustin, From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement (February, 1965)

I believe that the Negro's struggle for equality in America is essentially revolutionary. While most Negroes - in their hearts - unquestionably seek only to enjoy the fruits of American society as it now exists, their quest cannot objectively be satisfied within the framework of existing political and economic relations. The young Negro who would demonstrate his way into the labor market may be motivated by a thoroughly bourgeois ambition and thoroughly "capitalist" considerations, but he will end up having to favor a great expansion of the public sector of the economy. At any rate, that is the position the movement will be forced to take as it looks at the number of jobs being generated by the private economy, and if it is to remain true to the masses of Negroes.

How are these radical objectives to be achieved? The answer is simple, deceptively so: through political power.

The civil rights protest movement nor the country's twenty million black people can win political power alone. We need allies. The future of the Negro struggle depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States.

(7) Federal Bureau of Investigation internal memorandum (25th January, 1966)

Rustin is a very competent individual who is widely known in the civil rights field. He is personally familiar with numerous individuals with communist backgrounds. As one of Martin Luther King's closest advisers, he is in a position to wield considerable influence on King's activities. Technical coverage of Rustin is an important part of the overall coverage of King, who is the most prominent civil rights in the country today. Because of the influence being exerted on King by persons with subversive backgrounds, it is necessary for us to maintain coverage of individuals such as Rustin. In order to fulfill the Bureau's responsibilities to uncover communist influence in racial matters, it is recommended that technical coverage of Rustin be continued.

(8) Bayard Rustin, Strategies for Freedom (1976)

We (leaders of the civil rights movement) envisioned a Democratic Party by a coalition consisting of the labour movement, the minorities, and the liberals. We felt such an alliance had the potential to win a majority, simply because its various components possessed an ideological commitment to social change and a personal relationship to working people. For some blacks, though, particularly those residing in the South, acquiring political power was of more urgency than building a coalition. Thus the civil rights movement had to confront both immediate and long-range goals.

The guiding force of the Mississippi Freedom Party was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A few years after the 1964 convention, SNCC collapsed. Its grand design for transforming Southern politics had failed. It found it could not build a political movement consisting exclusively of poor people.

In pointing this out, I do not mean to appear overcritical of SNCC. Among its membership were some of the most intelligent and fearless political activists this nation has ever seen. That so many of them have dropped out of the racial struggle is out of the tragic consequences of our failure to resolve the problems which confronted the movement during its transition.