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Bayard Rustin

Here is a man hidden from history. Sometimes by his own efforts, for the greater good. A man that wrote, studied, acted, and organized. He went to prison to uphold his nonviolent values and integrated the mess hall there. He was spied on by the FBI for being an out and active Communist, at a cost of over $270.00 a month for years. Including noting his efforts to garner peace in conflicts the US was involved in. There are statues of his cohorts yet we today all benefit from the efforts and inroads he made, knowing little about him.

Rustin was one of the most influential civil rights activists of the 1950s and '60s, yet he maintained a low profile, reserving the spotlight for other prominent figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph. He was a firm believer in and practitioner of nonviolent forms of protest.

As a student at City College of New York in the late 1930s, Rustin was drawn to the Young Communist League. He organized for the group until 1941, when he turned his efforts to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a nondenominational religious group that sought racial justice, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a nonviolent direct-action organization dedicated to improving race relations and ending racial discrimination in the U.S. Rustin and Randolph planned a 1941 march on Washington to protest discrimination in the defense industry. The protest was cancelled when President Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting such discrimination. Rustin also organized 1947's Journey of Reconciliation, in which blacks and whites rode together on public transportation. The journey served as a model for the freedom rides of the 1960s. He was imprisoned several times in the 1940s for his activism.

The Supreme Court said that interstate buses must not be bothered. And that harassing the riders was no longer allowed. Bayard Rustin put his life on the line to challenge the southern sheriffs trying to take advantage of their position and impose racial division as a rule of law. 1947 well before the Freedom Riders of the 60's he was being arrested for acting like the citizen he was.

But what he is most unknown for is organizing the greatest March on Washington there ever was. The event containing Reverend Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech was a pivotal point in raising awareness amongst the American population that racism was not something the "Greatest Country on Earth" would do. And it encouraged thousands if not millions to be empowered in their own communities.

Rustin, Bayard, 1910–87, African-American civil-rights leader, b. West Chester, Pa. He attended three colleges but did not obtain a degree. A Quaker, he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector for more than two years during World War II. Devoting much of his early career to pacifist activities, he was (1941–53) on the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and headed (1953–55) the War Resisters League. In the early 1940s, Rustin also founded the New York branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, and he soon became a key figure in the struggle for African-American civil rights. As special assistant (1955–60) to Martin Luther King, Jr., he helped set up the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and, more generally, played an influential role in infusing King's movement with the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence (see Gandhi, Mohandas. Later, working in association with A. Philip Randolph, Rustin was the chief organizer of the massive 1963 March on Washington. From 1964 to 1987 he served as president of the Randolph Institute, a trade-union, educational, and civil-rights group. An openly gay man in a largely homophobic era, Rustin was usually obliged to employ his superb organizational and strategic skills behind the scenes.
Joachim Prinz speaking at March on Washington, with Bayard Rustin pictured, 1963

This wasn't the first March on Washington Rustin was involved in:

Rustin helped Philip Randolph plan a proposed March on Washington in June, 1941, in protest against racial discrimination in the armed forces. The march was called off when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in defence industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act).
But reason won out before a march was needed.

Most notably Bayard Rustin was an out Gay man when in many states just the fact one was Gay was reason enough for arrest or institutionalization. This is above and beyond the violence one encounters in this society when one is LGBT. At one point to protect the budding civil rights efforts of Dr. King Rustin quit his writing and other efforts in hopes of keeping the wedge issue away from civil rights. He came back to work again but it shows how LGBT animus is used as a way to divide communities, even those functioning well, if LGBT's can be demonized sufficiently.

Due to his sexuality, Bayard Rustin has been largely written out of Black History or simply ignored.

One of the most influential moments in Black history is most certainly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, but few Americans know that the March on Washington was organized by Bayard Rustin. It was Rustin who in the summer of 1963 coordinated activities to attain the license for the Lincoln Memorial, mobilized buses from various cities around the United States, and collaborated with African-American civic organizations to present a united effort.

Many Americans view Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of the non-violent protests leading to significant changes in rights for African-American citizens, but few know that Bayard Rustin practiced non-violent protesting prior to Dr. King and introduced him to the ideals of non-violent protest, which Dr. King eventually studied and adopted. In the mid-1940’s, Bayard Rustin was arrested for refusing to participate in the draft, along with other pacifists, and integrated the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary dining hall from within.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [A wide-angle view of marchers along the mall, showing the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument.], 08/28/1963

 If history is to accurately portray and celebrate how African-Americans went from then to now, it would be appropriate to have a statute of Bayard Rustin standing next to Dr. King on the National Mall whispering into his ear.
Bayard Rustin's FBI files.

Originally posted to Horace Boothroyd III on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 08:52 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Invisible People, and Remembering LGBT History.

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