The Activism and Legacy of Bayard Rustin

Summary of presentation by William Hewitt, Professor of History, West Chester University

Professor Hewitt gave a short lecture on the life and influences of Bayard Rustin (1912-1987). Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to an unwed mother, Rustin was one of eight children. He was subsequently raised by his maternal grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin, and even though they attended Janifer’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Julia had been raised a member of the Society of Friends and raised her charges in a Quaker household with a strong belief in God and principles of non-violence.

Rustin grew up in a segregated, Jim Crow neighborhood in West Chester but attended a desegregated high school as one of only a few black students. He was successful in the chorus, debate, and athletics; a biographer, John D’Emilio in Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, described him as a “Renaissance man, excelling in everything.” In athletics, Rustin started with tennis, ultimately abandoning it as a “pansy sport” before taking up football and distinguishing himself as an MVP offensive left tackle. By his senior year, he also became a great member of the school’s track and field team leading the team to the Penn Relays. After high school, Rustin attended several colleges before moving to New York City, ultimately ending up in Harlem where he lived the rest of his life.

In 1936, Rustin joined the Young Communist League, but never an enthusiastic supporter, splitting with the group over the group when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Rustin then began working with Anti-Communist supporters such as A. Phillip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and A.J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Together they planned a march on Washington in 1940 to protest racial discrimination of minority workers, but the march was cancelled after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act).

After 1940, Rustin became involved in anti-war movements in various forms, reporting in September 1942, that he had logged over 10,000 miles, in 20 states, speaking to 5,000 people counseling against war. As a pacifist, Rustin initially resisted the draft, but in 1944, the federal district court indicted and convicted Rustin for violating the Selective Service Act and sentenced him to three years at hard labor at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. While imprisoned Rustin suffered harsh treatment for being both black and for his status as a conscientious objector with courage and nonviolent resistance.

Following his release from prison, Rustin began to travel widely, giving speeches on discrimination and other issues. While on a tour of North Carolina, he provoked another arrest for violating Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation and subsequently served twenty-two days on a chain gang. He recorded his experiences in the sensational essay “22 Days on a Chain Gang.”

Between 1947 and 1952, Rustin strengthened his non-violent philosophies and practices during a series of trips to Africa and India, where he met with many of the practitioners of the teachings of Gandhi. In 1953, following a speech on non-violence in California, Rustin was arrested with two white men and charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, for which he served sixty days in jail. Following this arrest, Rustin lost his membership in the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Around this time Rustin began to write significantly, including his 71-page treatise entitled “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” published in 1955, wherein he analyzed the Cold War and the American response to it.

In 1956, Rustin traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where he met with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. During this time, he provided King with advice and tutored him in non-violent practices while King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin followed this by organizing a Prayer Pilgrimage in 1957 to urge President Eisenhower to enforce Brown v Board of Education.

Rustin was the unrecognized genius behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, wherein he used his abilities to bring disparate groups together in support of the Civil Rights movement. However, in the years following the March on Washington, Rustin began to pull away from the leftist parts of the movement which he viewed as both too militant (the Black Panthers) and too off-track (Affirmative Action). During this time Rustin became a strong supporter of Israeli statehood, while still acknowledging that Israel was guilty of injustices against Palestinians.

Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Rustin became a delegate for the organization Freedom House, monitoring Human Rights and elections in places such as Poland, Zimbabwe, Chile, El Salvador and Haiti, among many others. It was on a trip to Haiti, in fact, that he contracted intestinal parasites that weakened him before his return to New York City, where he died of a heart attack on August 21, 1987.

To be gay in the decades when Rustin lived openly and unashamed of his sexual orientation meant living with almost constant awareness of vulnerability. Most gays and lesbians stayed in the closet. His courage and legacy continue to provide a role models as Civil Rights and Gay Rights activist can be felt daily throughout the West Chester and Philadelphia communities today. Rustin’s activism and example informs the classes taught on gays and lesbians throughout the area (West Chester University first taught a class on the LGBT community in 1998).

In 2002, WCU History Professor John Turner circulated a petition to name a new high school in West Chester after Rustin. The proposal passed after a contentious battle where enemies of the idea labeled him as un-American because of his early Young Communist League affiliation, but many of his critics using this subterfuge to reject him because he was gay. The activists for naming the school after Rustin, inspired by his example, carried the day.

Professor Hewitt finished his lecture with a quote from Bayard Rustin: “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”

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