BAYARD RUSTIN Biography - Activists, Revolutionaries and other freedom fighters


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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."         
Rustin had a fine voice and sung in local folk clubs with Josh       
White. In September, 1939, Rustin was recruited by Leonard DePaur 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         
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 Prison. Other       
members of Congress on Racial Equality, including George Houser 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 opposed to 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. Members of   
the team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, Rustin was   
found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and was   
sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang.                             
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. Names       
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.