Popular memory too often portrays the Civil Rights Movement as a one-man show that began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In fact, the movement began earlier, lasted longer, and featured contributions from a large ensemble cast. Bayard Rustin ranks among the most important of the struggle’s unjustly forgotten leaders.
In this quest for the Promised Land, if MLK was the movement’s Aaron — its principal spokesman — then Rustin played the role of Moses. He became the struggle’s chief strategist, the original American mastermind of nonviolent resistance, Freedom Rides and the March on Washington.
In the Torah, Aaron serves as God’s interlocutor because Moses is “slow of speech.” Rustin could speak quite eloquently, but another issue disqualified him from a high-profile role in the movement: he was gay.
Born today in 1912 to a prosperous family in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin grew up in a home that often hosted W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson and other NAACP leaders.
He quit college to work as a singer and political activist. A gifted tenor, Rustin performed with Paul Robeson and the folk group Josh White and His Carolinians.
As an activist, he promoted pacifism, socialism and racial justice. Rustin became a Communist briefly, but quit when the party de-emphasized racial justice while advocating American support for the USSR during World War II.
Rustin worked with the labor leader A. Philip Randolph to devise an effective strategy to advance civil rights during wartime. They planned a March on Washington in the summer of 1941 to protest segregation in the military and the refusal of many factories to hire black people. To avert disruption of the war effort, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination “because of race, creed, color, or national origin” by the US government or by companies with defense contracts. In a gesture of gratitude, Randolph canceled the proposed demonstration, but he and Rustin saved the idea for future use.
However, the next year, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, violating the civil rights of a smaller minority. As the agent of a Quaker relief organization, Rustin rushed to California to help Japanese Americans secure their property before reporting to concentration camps.
Later in 1942, he helped found the Congress of Racial Equality, the second major civil rights organization. Rustin’s influence helped define CORE’s strategy of complementing the legal activism of the NAACP with nonviolent protest.
Like some other pacifists, Rustin finished the war in federal prison for refusing to cooperate with the draft. He passed the time protesting the facility’s segregated dining halls, learning to play the lute, and organizing a Free India Committee via correspondence.
After his release, Rustin worked with CORE to organize the first Freedom Rides to defy segregation on interstate bus lines. He and his comrades endured beatings, incarceration and chain gangs.
In 1948, Rustin traveled to India to learn techniques of nonviolent protest directly from Gandhi’s protégés. He also formed an organization to protest British colonial rule in Africa.
Meanwhile, he cut a couple of albums: Elizabethan Songs and Negro Spirituals and Bayard Rustin Sings Twelve Spirituals on the Life of Christ, both recorded in 1952. Neither sold well, and both are hard to find today.
The next year, Rustin made a mistake that nearly ended his public life. After Pasadena police caught him having gay sex in a parked car, he plead guilty to “perversion” and served 60 days in jail. For this offense, he lost both his musical career and his job with a Quaker peace organization.
Rustin remained an activist, but stayed mostly behind the scenes. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he advised King and promoted Gandhian principles of nonviolent protest as the movement’s primary method of resistance. He helped King organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a highly effective civil rights group. However, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), an SCLC board member, threatened to publicize the Pasadena arrest in Congress, forcing Rustin to resign.
Ultimately, he got outed, anyway. When Rustin began to organize the 1963 March on Washington, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina detailed the Pasadena incident on the Senate floor and excoriated the activist as a “Communist, draft-dodger and homosexual.” The segregationist also insinuated that King and Rustin were lovers.
Fortunately, Rustin persevered, with support from MLK and Randolph. His organizational genius helped ensure the success of the March on Washington.
In 1964. Rustin organized a massive and peaceful boycott of New York public schools by students and teachers to urge the immediate desegregation of city schools. Though it constituted the largest civil rights demonstration in American history, the school board refused to accede to their demands.
Later that year, Rustin advised Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in their efforts to secure representation for black voters from their state at the Democratic National Convention.
After Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Rustin urged the movement to shift its focus from protest to politics. He envisioned a multiracial coalition within the Democratic Party to promote the War on Poverty, the Great Society and full employment at decent wages.
In foreign policy, Rustin shifted from pacifism to pragmatism. During and after Vietnam, when many leftists began to question the Cold War, he continued to support the containment of Communism. He expressed support for Israel as a democracy threatened by hostile “proto-fascist” Muslims.
Like many liberals and socialists who risk independent thought, Rustin caught flack late in life from leftist ideologues who derided him as a “neoconservative” and even an “Uncle Tom” (and worse). Those detractors have worked hard to erase his memory.
If better acquainted with history and current events, Rustin’s leftist critics would be forced to concede that he mostly grew wiser with age. Liberalism and the Civil Rights Movement tended to flourish when they followed his advice, and founder when they ignored it.
Rustin died in 1987. In 2013, President Obama gave him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. His partner Walter Naegle accepted the award on his behalf.
In the Bible, neither Moses nor Aaron made it to the Promised Land. Similarly, neither King nor Rustin lived to see their dream of racial reconciliation realized. Of course, their fruitful alliance brought us much closer.
However, we who remain will continue to wander in the wilderness until we stop waiting for a Joshua to lead us home. That means accepting our individual and collective responsibility to build a racially just society, by emulating the values and strategies of civic prophets like King and Rustin who five decades ago brought us within view of the Promised Land.
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