(1912 - 1987)
Santa Barbara, California - Autumn 1964
Bayard Rustin has been described as the "invisible man" of the civil rights movement.1 He was an influential adviser to a number of leading African American activists. He was a master strategist and tactician. He was the key organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington. And it was Rustin, as much as anyone, who introduced Gandhi's principals of nonviolent political action to the movement. But this colorful and controversial man is often lost in the shadows of public memory.
Some writers and historians say Rustin was content with his status as an "intellectual engineer behind the scenes."2 In this view, Rustin was such a powerfully original character, with such a singular and capacious political philosophy, that the mantle of public leadership would have chafed and constricted him. Others argue that Rustin was "largely written out of the history of the civil rights movement" because he stayed true to a broad social agenda that benefited all marginalized people at a time when the black civil rights establishment was growing more politically narrow and parochial.3
Others contend that Rustin's homosexuality cost him a more central and more memorable role in the movement. As a gay man in mid-century America, Rustin was vulnerable to rivals and adversaries who could capitalize on the stigma and shame attached to homosexuality. He was an object of suspicion to some leaders of the civil rights movement, especially among socially conservative ministers heading the movement in the South.
J. Edgar Hoover's FBI kept an eye on Rustin, feeding damaging information about him to his foes. As the editors of an anthology of Rustin's writing argue, "perhaps no other figure contributed so much to the civil rights movement yet has been so heavily penalized by it."4 Although Rustin, himself, struggled with the spiritual and political consequences of his homosexuality, biographer John D'Emilio says he remained "unusually open" about it. 5
Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 in a suburb of Philadelphia. His mother, Julia, was a Quaker and an early member of the NAACP. Her influence shaped Rustin's beliefs about nonviolent social change. Rustin attended Wilberforce University in Ohio and then Cheney State Teacher's College in Pennsylvania, both historically black colleges. He was forced to leave both schools for engaging in homosexual relationships.
Rustin moved to New York in 1937 to attend City University. He immersed himself in Harlem's rich African American culture and in the city's gay community. Tall, handsome and athletic, Rustin was an accomplished singer who performed with notable musicians like Josh White and Paul Robeson.
For a time in the 1930s, Rustin was drawn to the socially progressive promises of communism. While a student at City College, he joined the Youth Communist League. Rustin was inspired by the party's activism on behalf of black Americans and its initial opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II. But like many other idealistic liberals of his time, Rustin lost faith in communism. He eventually became a staunch opponent.
As a Quaker, Rustin could have avoided the World War II military draft by seeking conscientious objector status. But he refused to take part in the government's alternative service program – he wanted no part of the war effort. Rustin's refusal to serve landed him in federal prison for more than two years. After his release, Rustin got a job on the field staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a Christian pacifist group. Rustin studied Gandhi and visited India. Then he roamed the United States, lending his formidable strategic and organizational skills to the growing civil rights movement. Along the way, Rustin's refusal to back down in the face of Jim Crow discrimination landed him in jail time after time.
Rustin was the "perfect" social activist and organizer, liberal scholar Paul Berman writes, "except for the single disabling quirk of his notoriously promiscuous homosexuality."6 In 1953, Rustin was arrested and jailed in Pasadena, CA for having sex with two other men in the back of a car. Rustin was sentenced to 60 days in jail. Biographer John D'Emilio says the arrest was a "pivotal event" in Rustin's life, a mark on his character that would "severely restrict" the role he was to play in the peace and civil rights movements.
In the 1950s, Rustin began a long period working for a small pacifist group called the War Resisters League. He lent what help he could to the building civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South. In 1956, Rustin travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, to support a boycott against segregated seating on city buses. There, he became a mentor to a young activist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin helped connect King to the civil rights establishment in the North, and helped build King's own organizational base in the South. Rustin was principally responsible for helping King create his own institution: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And Rustin played a key role in shaping a civil rights philosophy that King would make famous.
In the early years of his civil rights activism, King was not the apostle of nonviolence he would later become. King favored nonviolence. But Rustin was astonished to find guns at the ready for self-defense in King's Birmingham home. Rustin was one of two men who most encouraged King to embrace Gandhian philosophy and methods of nonviolent social action (the other was the white, Christian pacifist Glenn Smiley). "Rustin was as responsible as anyone else for the insinuation of nonviolence into the very heart of what became the most powerful social movement in twentieth-century America," D'Emilio writes.7
But Rustin's sexual behavior would continue to bedevil him, straining his relations with King and other conservative Christians who led the movement. In addition, his critics viewed him as arrogant, unstable, and excessively radical. Yet Rustin's brilliance as an organizer made him too valuable to banish forever.
In 1963, the legendary civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph – long Rustin's mentor and supporter – tapped him to organize a massive protest in the nation's capital, something that is familiar today but was still a fresh, novel idea then. Rustin had only seven weeks to pull it together. The prospect of failure was real and daunting. As Rustin labored to pull disparate movement groups and leaders together, segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond of North Carolina – egged on by the FBI -- denounced him as a communist, a draft dodger and a pervert. But Randolph insisted Rustin stay on as the protest's main organizer. On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington drew some 250,000 people and was capped by King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Rustin's event became a landmark in American history.
Rustin gave the address that follows in the fall of 1964. He spoke at the Center for Democratic Institutions, a liberal think tank in Santa Barbara, CA. Michael Harrington also spoke. Harrington was a prominent American socialist and author of the influential book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States.
In the speech, Rustin mentions visiting Cleveland, Ohio, with King. The men had traveled there just a few days earlier as part of a cross-country, get-out-the-vote tour of black communities. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection against Republican Barry Goldwater. Black leaders had agreed to an informal moratorium on civil rights demonstrations to avoid undermining Johnson's campaign.8
Rustin gave this talk at a time when his role and reputation in the civil rights movement was just beginning to wane. A growing number of black activists were rejecting racial integration in favor of black nationalist or separatist ideals. Rustin stuck to his vision of a coalition movement. He wanted to transform the Democratic Party in the United States into a European-style social democratic movement, open to all creeds and colors. Rustin argued that economically disadvantaged whites and African Americans had to band together to gain political power -- within the system -- to fight their common enemy, economic segregation. On this basis, Rustin later opposed affirmative action. He said it would pit whites and blacks against each other in an atmosphere of "competitive scarcity."9
In 1965, Rustin was hired to run the newly created A. Philip Randolph Institute. The Randolph Institute was devoted to liberal coalition building. Although a lifelong pacifist, Rustin resisted getting drawn deeply into opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. His prominence and authority within the liberal establishment argued against taking a radical stance. As the late 1960s and early 1970s unfolded, Rustin's resistance to the black power movement estranged him from younger, more militant black activists.
In the 1970s and 80s, Rustin increasingly turned his energies to international human rights issues. His personal life also became more settled. Rustin enjoyed a stable, long-term romantic relationship. He travelled and spent time on hobbies, like collecting antiques. Rustin campaigned for gay rights and against HIV-AIDS.
As Rustin's hair grayed and his civil rights colleagues grew older, he was increasingly recognized for his contribution to the mid-century movement. Harvard, Yale and other universities awarded him honorary degrees. Bayard Rustin died in 1987, at age 75.
In the last decades of the 20th century, major retrospectives on the civil rights movement poured forth in books, films and television documentaries. In many of them, Rustin remains essentially a background figure – more than a footnote, less than a chapter. But Vernon Jordan of the Urban League described Rustin as the "chairman of the ideas committee" for the freedom struggle.10
The question invariably arises as to what, in fact, is the nature of the civil rights movement today? And I am one who claims that it is, at once, a movement for integration into the American society, as it now exists, and simultaneously a revolutionary movement. If one were to ask the average Negro what it is he wants, with the exception of Mr. Baldwin and a few other writers who, very often, are not in very close touch with the Negro community themselves, the Negro will say what any minority says if it uses the word integration.
That is to say, we want our slice of that cake. We do not want to change it from vanilla to chocolate. We want that cake, and our share of it, and we want it now. That is the conscious objective of the Negro movement. However the Negro thinks of his effort to integrate, the very fact that the American institutions, as they now exist, cannot accept the demands of the Negroes and remain what they are. To that extent the Negro revolt is revolutionary.
Illustrations: For many years, Mr. Hutchins, the former president of Harvard University, and others, have been telling the country that we have a 19th century school system, incapable of dealing and educating people for the 20th century. But the American people could not, in fact, face the need for revolutionary change in education until 1954. When, in fact, following that decision, the Negro people moved to get their share of the cake. It is quite clear to anyone, from the debate today, that it is Negroes after their share of the cake that has catapulted the true discussion of an American school system, adequate for the technological revolution, etc. And it could not have come without some segment of the society being in movement.
People are often given to giving Michael Harrington credit for having started the war on poverty, and I want to bow to him in that respect. However, I think that had not Mike Harrington been deeply involved in the civil rights struggle, number one, he would never have written that book. And number two, had he written it without the masses of Negroes demanding work in our time, the president would never have been forced to have introduced the war on poverty. To that extent, the Negro is forcing the American people into a revolutionary situation. That is to say, the pressure of Negro masses for work, for the elimination of slums, for quality integrated education, will force this nation and its people to reexamine the proposition that major social change in this country is possible until they face the fact that the private sector of this economy cannot deal with the demands of the Negro people. That the Negro people will stay in motion until their demands are met. And thereby, logically, you have not an idea that the public sector must take on greater responsibility. You have, simultaneously, mass pressure from the bottom that that should be done now, not next week.
Now, having clarified the discussion which often takes place about whether the Negro movement is revolutionary, or whether it is accomodationist, I conclude by saying it is both. As far as Negroes at this period in their development are concerned, they consciously want to become a part of American institutions as they are. So far as their movement is concerned, it demands that America deal with the contradictions of this society, and that much thinking – economic, social, and political – be changed, and that new institutions come into existence on the basis of their movement, and their unconscious analysis of the situation.
Now, if one really, I believe, is interested in the question of peace today, he continues to carry on his propaganda for peace. But one of the things he must do simultaneously is to analyze where in the society there is sufficient movement, and on what basis that movement takes place.
Now, I don't know if the California papers reported the most interesting day that Dr. King and I spent in Cleveland. Where under the pressure, now, of having to evolve new techniques for the accommodation of the energy of the Negro people, we decided that we were going to try something last Tuesday, largely because we wanted the Negro people to exercise not only their demand for justice, but to exercise their responsibilities now. And so we set up a committee of a hundred men in Cleveland, and asked them to put into the newspapers the fact that Dr. King and I would be traveling from street corner to street corner, from bar to hairdressing parlor, that we wanted to go to every institution in the Negro community, last Friday, in Cleveland.
They put in the newspapers the times we would be on certain street corners, when we would be in front of the NAACP office, when we would be in front of the CORE office, when we would be at the main intersection. And they announced that our purpose was to ask the Negro people, there, in small groups, what their feelings were, what they were interested in, how we could be of help to them. Well needless to say, if we had not had adequate police protection, we would have been utterly mobbed and we could not have had orderly meetings. For we must have spoken with 25,000 people, who told us precisely what they wanted. That is, not in one place but throughout the day. And then we would tell them how they should exercise their responsibility and go to the polls.
Now, why? Because we are in a new period. From 1955 until 1963, the Negro people's attention was given to those things which most highly revealed the basis of their revolt. And the key word is dignity. The one place where it was clear that one was not being treated with dignity was in public accommodations, because they had to come up against this daily, whether they liked it or not. You had go in order to travel to the back of the bus. If you were in downtown in many, many cities in the South, it was an impossibility even to go to the toilet without walking ten or fifteen blocks. Or if you were hungry and your child needed milk, to have to go 20 blocks in order to get a bottle of milk to feed your child or to get a bottle heated. These were the high indications of the absence of dignity. And, therefore, it was logical that a revolt that was about dignity should be concerned with public accommodations.
During that 10-year period – '55, beginning with the Montgomery bus protests, followed by the sit-ins, followed by the freedom rides, followed by Birmingham – demonstration became the key tactic, and for very logical reasons. A demonstration, carried on non-violently, was capable of calling attention to the absence of dignity, was capable of assaulting the institution that was without dignity, and simultaneously could change that institution. If you had 50 Negroes who were willing to sit in the restaurant, go to jail, be beaten, have cigarette ends stuffed down their neck, have their hair clipped, have their hair burned, if they would merely sit, that institution, that restaurant could be changed in a few days.
However, after Birmingham, where Dr. King asked for what we now refer to as the package deal – we want full employment, we want the slums destroyed, we want all Negro children to get a decent education. Even so simple a thing as that, in Birmingham, we want the truant officer to see that Negro student go to school as well as white, and that they go to decent schools. When Dr. King raised those questions, of jobs, of quality integrated schools, and of the destruction of slums, the Negro so-called revolt had now moved toward a critique of the basic institutions of the country, which no demonstration could, simultaneously, call attention to and correct.
Now, I say this, because if you'll note, during the election, Dr. King, Mr. Wilkins, and some of us, very much to the distress of some of the younger Negroes, called for a moratorium on demonstrations. And for the simple reason that we now knew that the job which we had was not a demonstrating job, fundamentally, but a much larger job. And that was, if in order to build quality schools, destroy slums, and find full employment, it is necessary to get that money from city, from the state, and from the federal government, then what we now need is a political movement – the coalescence of political forces which are strong enough to represent a consensus larger than that which says we do not want social change.
And we are reminded of the Civil Rights Bill, which went through Congress precisely because the Negro came to see that he did not have political strength to push it through. He therefore appealed to the labor movement, to the churches, to peaceniks, to intellectuals, and to students, and that combination of people, truly in movement on the streets, was capable of breaking filibuster, of getting social legislation for the first time since 1938, and creating a moral atmosphere that there were many changes needed in this nation – economic, social, and political.
So, therefore, the crisis for the Negro movement today, is first to recognize that it is playing the role of catalyst, that it needs the support of millions of white people, and that we must now drop any slogans which tend to indicate that the Negro is interested in himself first. Thus the idea of preferential treatment for Negroes is to my mind a very dangerous one. Given the technological revolution, this kind of talk on the part of Negro institutions, merely leads to that atmosphere where Negroes and whites will be fighting in the streets over the few jobs which do exist, or over jobs which do not exist. And that, therefore, the object now, in the spring, when Dr. King and I go into the cities concerning employment, is to appeal to the white unemployed to march with us. With the students and intellectuals to march with us. Because we must, now, give a picture of these demands being the demands of the American people, and not merely of Negroes.
In this regard, we hope that in the spring it will be possible for Dr. King and myself, representatives of the NAACP and every other Negro organization, of the National Council of Churches – white – of the trade union movement – white – to move into 10 cities. And for four days, we go to the street corners, educating these people, calling upon them to talk about their problem. And then say to them, on the fifth day, Friday, you will meet us at X point, and there, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 of us will all march to the mayor's office, saying we will have no more relief, we will be employed, we want work, give us work now. And to have a delegation go in with demands which the mayor should carry to Washington. Now if that can be done in ten cities, as we accomplished it, following the rioting in Harlem, where Mayor Wagner went to Washington with a new economic program, and didn't get very far. But if can be done with ten cities, then you reach something new in the situation, because the President of the United States cannot have this come from the ten major cities without proposing something.
I think that, in other words, following the election, the major purpose of the civil rights movement are three: Keep in motion and on the streets. Two, broaden the base of the protest by getting many, many more white elements into it. And thirdly, proceed to make demands which are in keeping with full employment for all, work of some kind for all, including redefinition of work, if necessary, including the fact that the technological revolution, while it may do much damage if social attitudes are not correct, that there are yet millions of jobs which can be made available to people.
And I want to be quite precise here, because people like ourselves are often so far up in orbit that we can't get the simple people on the street to understand what we're talking about. The school system of this country is a bad school system for many reasons, but one of the reasons in our large cities, take Harlem for an example, teachers teach three sessions within the regular period. They become cops, they become babysitters, they become nursemaids. And yet we look at the unemployed Negroes and we say they are without skills. Well, I am here to say that some of the most skillful people in the world are unemployed Negroes. Because they have reared their own children, they have reared two or three generations of white children. And they are skilled with love and affection for children. Let us, therefore, elevate them to assistant teachers, the state gives them $4,000 a year, they go into the school, and they take from the teacher all of this police work and babysitting work. And the teacher is, then, if we can get many more schools built, if we can get smaller classrooms, I mean a smaller number of children in classrooms, these people can play a very vital role.
Another illustration: Central Park in New York City is losing its most beautiful trees through erosion. When I first came to New York in 1932, it was a beautiful park. It's a monster today. And yet simultaneously, we have hundreds of young Negroes and Puerto Ricans lying around the park, smoking marijuana, drinking wine. We should put them to work at rebuilding Central Park. And when it is rebuilt, put hundreds of them at work keeping it beautiful. But this can only happen if the federal government and the state is prepared to give the city of New York some money to do it.
Now, the final thing I'd like to say, and I've gone on much longer than I had actually intended. It seems to me always in the process of social change there are three jobs to be done. One is the job of analysis, and I'm sure that you people are deeply involved in that job. There is, secondly, the job of synthesis – seeing the nature of the future society. But in a way which is not so rashly blueprinted that it becomes silly. The third job, is that there would be in motion, in that society, an element to make politically possible what is foreseen.
And, I repeat, that the Negro movement is, in fact, revolutionary, in not its objective but its method and its demand. And the tragedy of the society, today, is that it is only the Negroes who are in social movement. And, therefore, we have the terrible and awesome responsibility to stay in movement, because it is our movement which makes possible many, many things for this society. Thank you.