Bayard Rustin was the ‘lost prophet’ of the civil rights movement
By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Bayard Rustin (1912–1987), the activist and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, was the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a leader for civil rights, nonviolence, socialism and LGBTQ rights. Often forgotten and relegated to the shadows because he was an openly gay man, Rustin was a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912, Rustin attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, and Cheyney State Teachers College, now Cheyney University, near Philadelphia. In the 1930s, he moved to New York City, where he studied at City College and became involved in the Young Communist League for a time before embracing socialism.
Rustin’s Quaker origins shaped his political philosophy and sense of conviction. “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me,” he said. A conscientious objector, his pacifism was reflected in his decision to resist the draft in 1943:
“Today I feel that God motivates me to use my whole being to combat by nonviolent means the ever-growing racial tension in the United States; at the same time the state directs that I shall do its will; which of these dictates can I follow — that of God or that of the state? Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the state. But when the will of God and the will of the state conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God. If I cannot continue in my present vocation, I must resist.”
The master strategist and organizer met Martin Luther King in the 1950s, became his adviser, worked on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the launching of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and brought King to the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi. The man responsible for organizing the March on Washington, Bayard was regarded as the only person able to get the job done.
“As we follow this form of mass action and strategic nonviolence,” Rustin said of the march, the largest the country had ever seen, “we will not only put pressure on the government, but we will put pressure on other groups which ought by their nature to be allied with us.” Yet, even as he propelled King to national prominence, he faced criticism from leaders in the movement because of his open sexuality and his arrest record that came with it.
Rustin’s mentors included pacifist A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and labor leader A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. From Randolph, Rustin understood the interconnectivity of economic and racial justice. As Rustin said, “the demonstration bore the title “March for Jobs and Freedom.’ We realized even then that true freedom and racial equality cannot be achieved within the context of a stagnant economy, unable to provide blacks with permanent, good-paying jobs.”
A black gay man who embodied intersectionality before it was recognized as such, Bayard Rustin fought for many causes during his life, as his 10,000-page FBI file indicated, from Japanese internment to segregation, from draft resisters and prisoners to workers, from apartheid to anti-nuclear activism.
“In my statement, I cited the major lesson I had learned in fighting for human rights for 50 years for people all over the world. That lesson is simple: no group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment,” he said to New York mayor Ed Koch in 1986 when testifying in support of gay rights legislation.
In 2013, Bayard Rustin posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Obama. He was the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement.