Black History Month, day 2

Bayard Rustin, born 100 years ago next month, was the most important civil rights leader you might never have heard of.  He organized the 1963 March on Washington–the largest protest, at that date, in US history–and in the dozen years that he was a close adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., he had a seismic influence on the nonviolent philosophy King would come to articulate so well. His frankness about being gay got him in trouble with the law (homosexuality was illegal almost everywhere), met with dismay  from colleagues who were nervous about their fragile cause being damaged by association with “sex perversion,” and is possibly the reason his name has largely faded from the stories of the civil rights movement. Certainly, being a powerful speaker, he would have been more of a public face of the movement than the behind-the-scenes organizing genius he was, if only he and the movement had not feared that giving prominence to a known gay man would jeopardize it. His legacy is coming into its own at last, however, in time for, and partly thanks to, his centennial.


Rustin (center) before a 1964 demonstration. Photo by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer.

In Nashville in 1942, Rustin sat down in the front of a bus and refused to move. He was beaten by four cops and taken to the station, where he “discussed pacifism and the philosophy of nonviolence with the assistant district attorney, Benjamin West . . . [and was] allowed to leave without being charged or arrested.” (Curriculum Guide to Brother Outsider) A great Quaker tradition! Five years later, he and 15 other activists took a Journey of Reconciliation by bus  through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky “to test the 1946 Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Virginia, which ruled that segregation is unconstitutional on interstate buses.” The outcome of their being greeted by a mob in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was that a Chapel Hill judge found them guilty of violation of the state’s laws, indulging in a rant about the “Jews from New York” bringing “[their] n*****s with [them] to upset the customs of the South” as he delivered the sentence. What was being tested was not just the Supreme Court’s decision of the year before, but whether states would abide by federal laws protecting citizens, or insist that each state was a law unto itself.

The similarity of Rosa Parks’s action 13 years after Rustin sat in the whites-only section of a Nashville bus, and the similarities between the Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides that followed it by 14 years, were not coincidences. The later activists deliberately modeled their protests on those of Rustin and company. When Rosa Parks was arrested, Rustin was there to advise the Montgomery Improvement Association in the subsequent boycott.

At the time he began getting advice about the boycott from Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., owned a gun and was accepting an armed guard around his home, and had not yet fully committed to keeping the movement nonviolent. Through conversations with Rustin and another Fellowship of Reconciliation activist, Glenn Smiley, King learned about Gandhi’s teachings and the power of nonviolent resistance. What direction would the civil rights movement have taken if he had not accepted the influence of Rustin’s deeply educated pacifism?