The Man Behind the Movement
President Obama set to award the Medal of Freedom to controversial civil rights leader Bayard Rustin
By Peter Dreier 08/15/2013
Last week, the White House announced that Bayard Rustin, the trailblazing civil rights activist, will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
The timing couldn’t be better. Rustin was a key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and the primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — a job he seemed to have prepared for all his life. Many Americans will be celebrating that event’s 50th anniversary on Aug. 28 and insisting that the country complete the march’s unfinished business of economic justice, full employment, voting rights and equal opportunity.
Rustin is not as well known as other civil rights leaders, in large part because of his homosexuality. Although highly respected in labor, pacifist and civil rights circles, he was typically a behind-the-scenes organizer rather than a public figure.
Three weeks before the march, US Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina segregationist, publicly attacked Rustin on the floor of the Senate by reading reports of his arrest in Pasadena a decade earlier — documents he probably got from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He sought to use Rustin’s homosexuality to discredit the civil rights movement.
Rustin had been arrested many times for civil disobedience as part of his work for peace and civil rights. But this arrest was different. In January 1953, Rustin came to Pasadena as part of a speaking tour organized by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group. On the evening of Jan. 21, Rustin spoke at an event sponsored by the American Association of University Women at the Pasadena Athletic Club. A local paper noted that Rustin’s “sparkling lecture on world peace charmed” the audience. After the talk, Rustin started to walk back to his hotel, but he never got there. Pasadena police found him having sex with two men in a parked car near the corner of Raymond Avenue and Green Street, near his hotel. They were arrested for “public indecency.” At the time, homosexuals were considered “deviant” and gay sex was a crime in every state. He spent 60 days in Los Angeles County Jail.
Although Rustin was unusually open with friends about his homosexuality, this was the first time it had become public. For the rest of his life, Rustin’s organizing work was often done behind the scenes, because even the most radical pacifist and civil rights groups didn’t want to tarnish their reputations by being associated with a homosexual.
A decade later, even some members of the March on Washington steering committee were wary of hiring Rustin as its chief organizer. However, A. Philip Randolph — the civil rights movement’s elder statesman — insisted that Rustin was the only person who could pull off the complicated politics and logistics needed to make the march a success. He got the job, but, as John D’Emilio noted in his biography, “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” thanks to Sen. Thurmond, “Rustin had become perhaps the most visible homosexual in America.”
Honoring Rustin with the Medal of Freedom tells us something about how far America has come as a nation in the past 50 years. After all, he had four strikes against him. He was a pacifist, a radical, black and gay. Controversy surrounded him all his life.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, Rustin marshaled his considerable talents as an organizer, strategist, speaker and writer to challenge the economic and racial status quo. Always an outsider, he helped catalyze the civil rights movement with courageous acts of resistance.
Who was Rustin, what did he accomplish and what is his legacy?
Born in 1912, the youngest of eight children, Rustin was raised by his grandparents in West Chester, Pa. Although they attended his grandfather’s African Methodist Episcopal church, Rustin was strongly influenced by the Quaker faith of his grandmother, who was an early member of the NAACP. Some NAACP leaders, including W. E. B. DuBois, stayed with the Rustins when they were on speaking tours.
Rustin was a gifted student, an outstanding athlete, a skilled orator and poet, and an exceptional tenor. Early in his life, he revealed a strong social conscience. In high school, he was arrested for refusing to sit in the West Chester movie theater’s segregated balcony, nicknamed “Nigger Heaven.”
Rustin attended two black colleges (Wilberforce University and Cheyney State) before moving to New York City in 1937. He enrolled briefly at City College of New York, where he got involved with the campus Young Communist League. He was attracted by their anti-racist efforts — including their fight against segregation in the military — but he broke with the Communist Party after a few years.
Rustin sang in nightclubs to earn money and once appeared with Paul Robeson in the Broadway musical “John Henry,” but he found other ways to channel his prodigious energy, his outrage against racism and his growing talent as an organizer.
He found two mentors who shaped his philosophy and employed him as an organizer. One was Randolph, a socialist who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labor union and the nation’s most militant civil rights leader. The other mentor, A. J. Muste, was a radical minister and former union organizer. Time Magazine called him the “No. 1 US pacifist.” He introduced Rustin to the teachings of Gandhi. Rustin’s commitment to Gandhi’s principles and his Quaker beliefs (he officially joined the church in 1935), shaped his activism for the rest of his life.
Randolph hired Rustin in 1941 to lead the youth wing of the March on Washington, designed to push President Franklin Roosevelt to open up defense jobs to black workers as the United States geared up for World War II. After FDR agreed to issue an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in defense industries, Randolph called off the protest, angering Rustin and opening a temporary breach between them.
Then, under Muste’s guidance, Rustin began a series of organizing jobs with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR, a Christian pacifist group), the American Friends Service Committee and the War Resisters League. These were small, mostly white organizations that provided Rustin with a home base, a title, a newsletter and a network of activists around the country.
A charismatic speaker, Rustin kept up a hectic travel schedule, preaching the gospel of nonviolence and civil disobedience on campuses, in churches and at meetings of fellow pacifists.
As a Quaker and conscientious objector, Rustin was legally entitled to do alternative service rather than military service during World War II. But on principle, objecting to war in general and the segregation of the armed forces in particular, he refused to serve even in the Civilian Public Service.
In 1944, Rustin was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act and served two years in federal prisons in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. In Kentucky, he protested the pervasive segregation within prisons, facing violence from prison guards and white prisoners. In Pennsylvania, prison officials kept Rustin away from other inmates so he wouldn’t influence them with his radical ideas.
After leaving prison, Rustin rejoined FOR and resumed his career as a peripatetic organizer. In April 1947, he led FOR’s interracial Journey of Reconciliation, engaging in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience through four Southern and border states. These demonstrations served as a precursor to the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s. He and others were arrested in Chapel Hill, NC. Rustin spent 22 days on a chain gang.
In 1948, Rustin went back to work for Randolph in order to push President Harry S. Truman to enforce and expand FDR’s anti-discrimination order. They organized protests in several cities and at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. Their work paid off: Truman desegregated the military and outlawed racial discrimination in the federal civil service later that year.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, while still working for FOR, Rustin visited India, Africa and Europe, where he made contact with activists in various independence and peace movements. Increasingly, he viewed the struggle for civil rights in America as part of a worldwide movement against war and colonialism.
After Rustin’s Pasadena arrest, Muste fired him for jeopardizing FOR’s already controversial reputation. But Randolph got him a similar job with the War Resisters League, a pacifist group founded in 1923, where Rustin worked for the next 12 years.
Over the next decade, Rustin receded from public view, but he continued to play a critical behind-the-scenes role as a civil rights organizer. At Randolph’s behest, he went to Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 to help local leaders organize a large-scale bus boycott. There Rustin began advising King, who had no organizing experience, on the philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience.
Rustin was “the perfect mentor for King at this stage in the young minister’s career,” observed D’Emilio, his biographer. “Rustin left a profound mark on the evolution of King’s role as national leader.”
Much of Rustin’s advice would be given from a distance, in phone calls, memos and drafts of articles and book chapters he wrote for King. He had to cut short his first visit to Montgomery because, as a gay man and a former communist, he was a political liability. Just at the moment when Rustin might have helped lead the mass movement for which he’d been working his entire adult life, he had to retreat to the shadows.
At the end of 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unlawful. The victory could have remained a local triumph rather than a national bellwether, but Rustin, along with Ella Baker and Stanley Levinson (another King adviser), had an idea for building a “mass movement across the South” with “disciplined groups prepared to act as ‘nonviolent shock troops,’” as Rustin put it. This was the genesis of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — conceived by Rustin and with King as its first president — which would catapult King to the national stage. Baker was hired to build the organization and Rustin became King’s strategist, ghostwriter and link to Northern liberals and unions.
In 1963, Randolph pulled together the leaders of the major civil rights, labor and liberal religious organizations and laid out his plan for a march on Washington. One key goal was to pass President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act, which was stalled in Congress. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would emphasize employment as well as civil rights, which reflected Randolph’s long history as a union organizer and champion of racial justice. Kennedy tried to dissuade them from holding the march, contending that it would undermine support for the legislation. But Randolph would not be cowed.
The leaders Randolph gathered endorsed the plan. But NAACP President Roy Wilkins objected to Randolph’s decision to put Rustin in charge of the march, because of his radicalism and his homosexuality. Randolph outmaneuvered Wilkins by announcing that he would be its director and choose his own deputy: Rustin, of course.
The march was a huge success. More than 250,000 people participated. King delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech. Ten months later, in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.
The final 24 years of Rustin’s life (he died in 1987) were something of an anti-climax. He continued his organizing work within the civil rights, peace and labor movements. He was still in demand as a public speaker. But he never again had the same influence. King — whose opponents were planting stories that he was under the influence of communists — continued to rely on Rustin’s advice, but always at a safe distance, fearful the movement would be tarnished by Rustin’s liabilities.
After Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Rustin wrote a controversial article, “From Protest to Politics,” in the then-liberal magazine Commentary. He argued that the coalition that had come together for the March on Washington needed to place less emphasis on protest and focus on electing liberal Democrats who could enact a progressive policy agenda centered on employment, housing and civil rights. Rustin drafted a “Freedom Budget,” released in 1967, which advocated “redistribution of wealth.” His ideas influenced King, who increasingly began to talk about the importance of jobs, unions and wealth redistribution.
The two biggest obstacles to Rustin’s program were the Vietnam War, which drained resources and attention away from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty program, and the urban riots that began in 1965 in Los Angeles and triggered a backlash against the civil rights movement. Rustin was among the first public figures to call for the withdrawal of all American forces from South Vietnam, but as LBJ escalated the war, Rustin muted his criticisms. He wanted to avoid alienating LBJ, key Democrats and union leaders who supported the war. When King announced his opposition to the war in 1967, it caused a rift between the two men. As a result, Rustin — who had for decades been one of the nation’s most important pacifists — was absent from the anti-war movement, which cost him credibility among New Left student activists.
Ironically, Rustin’s homosexuality became a centerpiece of his final few years. He had been wary of the burgeoning gay rights movement, which exploded after the Stonewall riot in New York City in 1969. But at the end of his life, when he was involved in a stable relationship, he began speaking publicly about the importance of civil rights for gays and lesbians. Thanks in part to a 2002 documentary film, “Brother Outsider,” Rustin has become an icon for gay rights activists.
Rustin would no doubt be proud of the progress America has made in human, civil, LBGT, workers’ and women’s rights, but if he were still alive he would surely be on the front lines of today’s battles to fulfill the promise of equality and social justice.
In 2002, the Republican-dominated school board in West Chester — a conservative district that is 89 percent white — voted to name its new high school after Rustin. At Bayard Rustin High School, where a huge photo of Rustin adorns a wall, teachers incorporate aspects of his life into their classes. Dr. Phyllis Simmons, the principal, insists, “Our students know who Bayard Rustin is.”
Now, thanks to President Obama’s decision to honor him, more Americans will know who Bayard Rustin is.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His book, “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame,” was published last year by Nation Books.