Bayard Rustin

The pacifist Bayard Rustin (1910-1987) was committed to nonviolent strategies for working toward racial equality and economic justice. He worked through a variety of groups organizing demonstrations for civil rights and for peace.

One of 12 children, Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia where the Quakers had established a colony of Black freedmen before the Civil War. Raised by his grandparents, he acquired a gourmet appreciation of fine food from his grandfather, a caterer, and a lifelong commitment to nonviolence and racial equality from his grandmother, a dedicated member of the Society of Friends and local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After graduating from West Chester High School as an honor student and three-letter star athlete, he drifted about the United States doing odd jobs and periodically studying history and literature at Cheney State Teachers College and Wilberforce University. In the mid-1930s, seeking an organization that shared his opposition to war and racism, he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). In 1938 he moved to Harlem as an organizer for the league, enrolling in the City College of New York and earning his livelihood by singing in nightclubs with Josh White and Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly").

In 1941 Rustin left the YCL and began a 12-year association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist, religious organization devoted to solving world problems through nonviolent means. As the FOR youth secretary, and then as director of its Department of Race Relations, Rustin served as an organizer for A. Philip Randolph's 1941 March on Washington. The demonstration convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which stipulated that all employers and unions with government defense contracts must cease racial discrimination and established a Committee on Fair Employment Practices to enforce the order. The following year, with James Farmer, he helped to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge Jim Crow by nonviolent direct action. A conscientious objector to military service, Rustin was imprisoned for resisting the draft in 1943 and served nearly two and a half years in the Ashland Correction Institute and Lewisburg Penitentiary.

After the end of World War II Rustin became chairman of the Free India Committee and later went to India to study the Gandhi movement's nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1947 he organized a Journey of Reconciliation to 15 cities in the South to publicize segregation in interstate transportation and to encourage African Americans to insist on the rights they had won in the courts. Arrested in North Carolina, Rustin served 22 days on a chain gang. (Two years later North Carolina abolished chain gangs.) In 1948 he directed A. Philip Randolph's Committee Against Discrimination in the Armed Forces, which helped to persuade President Harry S. Truman to issue an executive order banning racial segregation in the military.

Early in the 1950s Rustin became active in the movement of African nationalists seeking independence from European colonialism and also headed the pacifist War Resisters League. As a peace activist he mobilized the first Aldermaston march for nuclear disarmament in England and joined a ban-la-bombe march in the Sahara to protest the first French nuclear-test explosion.

Joining Martin Luther King, Jr. first in the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Rustin served for a half dozen years as a special assistant to King and played a major role in planning the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). A master logistician, Rustin organized many of the key civil rights demonstrations of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and A. Philip Randolph again turned to him to orchestrate the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963, which brought nearly a quarter of a million Americans to the Lincoln Memorial to petition for African American rights. In 1964, in the largest civil rights demonstration ever, he mobilized a boycott of the New York City public schools to protest racial imbalance. The eruption of violent race riots in the African American ghettoes of the nation and the emergence of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, however, forced Rustin from the forefront of African American protest and demonstrations.

After 1966 Rustin used his presidency of the A. Philip Randolph Institute to promote his Democratic-Socialist politics, particularly his belief that African American progress depends on a political coalition of African Americans and progressive whites united in their support of "A Freedom Budget for All Americans." This was designed to cure the basic economic ills of the nation through federal programs for full employment, the abolition of slums, and the reconstruction of the educational system. Elegant in diction and dress, with the poise and manners of an aristocrat, Rustin was a connoisseur of African art and European antiques. He was the author of Down the Line (1971), Strategies for Freedom (1976), and Which Way Out? A Way Out of the Exploding Ghetto (1967). Rustin received numerous honors, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, Liberty Bell Award, Eugene V. Debs Award, Howard University Law School J.F.K. Award, and Man of the Year Award from the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. He also chaired such notable organizations as the Social Democrats, U.S.A.; the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; and the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee.

In his nearly half a century struggle for peace, civil rights, and economic justice, Rustin was arrested more than 20 times. He never softened his principles. As late as 1980 he said, "You cannot give respectability to one terrorist group [meaning the Palestine Liberation Organization] without other groups benefiting from that respectability." Rustin died in New York City of a heart attack August 24, 1987.

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Further Reading on Bayard Rustin

Although Bayard Rustin has not yet been the subject of a full biography, many of his protest activities are chronicled in Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph (1972); August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (1973); David L. Lewis, King (1970); and Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980 (1981). His own views are best expressed in his books Which Way Out? A Way Out of the Exploding Ghetto (1967); Down the Line (1971); and Strategies for Freedom (1976).