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.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 17, 1912. He was raised by his maternal grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin.
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 Colored 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 his firm beliefs caused him to campaign against Jim Crow Laws in West Chester.
In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce University, a historically black college (HBCU). As a student, Rustin was active in a number of campus organizations. He left Wilberforce 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 racism. It was at this time (1936) that Rustin joined the American Communist Party.
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; Rustin left the American Communist Party in June of that year.
In June of 1941, Rustin helped Philip Randolph plan a proposed march on Washington, in protest against racial discrimination in the armed forces. The march was called off when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act).
Rustin travelled to California to help protect the property of Japanese-Americans who had been imprisoned in internment camps. Impressed with Rustin’s organizational skills and having worked with him in planning the March on Washington, Abraham Muste, executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) appointed Rustin as FOR’s secretary for student and general affairs in September of 1941.
In 1942, three members of FOR, 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 uses non-violent resistance to achieve social change. The group was also inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi; 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 January 12, 1944, he was arrested and charged with violating the Selective Service Act. At his trial on the 17th of February, he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. While serving his sentence, Rustin organized protests against segregated seating in the dining hall.
June 11, 1946, Rustin was released from jail and immediately joined George Houser in planning a campaign against segregated transport. Coined, The Journey of Reconciliation, it began on April 9, 1947. The team (composed of both whites and blacks) 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.
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.
In 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California 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” and thus served 60 days in jail. After his conviction he was fired from FOR and became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League.
After the arrest of Rosa Parks in December, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white man; Martin Luther King, decided to organize a protest against bus segregation. Rustin was asked to go to Montgomery to help organize this campaign.
By 1956, Rustin was King’s main advisor and together they formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organization was committed to using non-violence 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 within 2 months. 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 August 28th.
The decision to appoint Rustin as chief organizer was controversial. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was one of those who were against the appointment. He argued that being a former member of the American Communist party made him an easier target for the right-wing press. 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.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, was a great success. With an estimated attendance of 250,000 to 400,000; speakers included Philip Randolph (AFL-CIO), Martin Luther King (SCLC), Floyd McKissick (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Whitney 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 organization, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, he was asked to be its leader. Named after his close friend, Rustin worked for the organization until 1979.
In his final years Rustin was active in protests against the Vietnam War and in the Gay Rights Movement. In 1986 he claimed: “The barometer of where on is on human rights questions is no longer the blacker community, it’s the gay community; because it is the community which is most easily mistreated.”
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, one wrote: “The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) non-violent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.””
Rustin was survived by his partner of ten years, Walter Naegle.
**Rustin was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. and awarded honorary membership to Delta Phi Upsilon Fraternity, Inc. a fraternity of gay, bisexual, and progressive men.