Posted on 25 June 2020
An outspoken activist of civil rights, Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987) was an American Quaker who campaigned for equality.
Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and was raised by his grandparents. After finishing high school, Rustin held odd jobs, traveled widely, and obtained five years of university schooling at the City College of New York and other institutions without taking a degree.
In 1936, he became a member of the Society of Friends following in the footsteps of his grandmother who had been a Quaker. He completed an activist training program run by the American Friends Service Committee and embarked on his career as a civil rights and peace campaigner.
By the end of 1941, Rustin was working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation – a Christian peace organisation founded at the beginning of World War I and he had organized the New York branch of another reformist group, the Congress on Racial Equality.
Being a Conscientious Objector, Rustin refused to co-operate with the military draft and in 1944 he was imprisoned for two years in a Pennsylvanian jail. Whilst incarcerated, he organised protests against segregated seating in the dining hall. In a letter to the prison warden, Rustin wrote:
Both morally and practically, segregation is to me a basic injustice. Since I believe it to be so, I must attempt to remove it. There are three ways in which one can deal with an injustice. (a) One can accept it without protest. (b) On can seek to avoid it. (c) One can resist the injustice non-violently. To accept it is to perpetuate it.
In 1953 Rustin, who was homosexual, was arrested in California after he was discovered having sex with a man. He served 50 days in jail and was registered as a sex offender. While his sexual orientation resulted in him taking a less public role, he was hugely influential within the civil rights movement.
In the mid-1950s Rustin became a close adviser to the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and he was the principal organizer of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was also in the mid-1950s that Rustin wrote the Quaker pamphlet Speak Truth To Power. The pamphlet was written to promote non-violence and it helped coin the term, ‘Speak Truth to Power.’
Rustin came to Britain, in 1958, to take part in the first London to Aldermaston marches – which opposed the UK nuclear weapons program.
Rustin later was the chief architect of the March on Washington (August 1963), a massive demonstration to rally support for civil rights legislation that was pending in Congress. In 1964, he directed a one-day student boycott of New York City’s public schools in protest against racial imbalances in that system.
Rustin subsequently served as president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a civil rights organization in New York City, from 1966 to 1979. Soon thereafter he became involved in the gay rights movement.
Rustin died on 24 August 1987, of a perforated appendix. President Ronald Reagan issued a statement on Rustin’s death, praising his work for civil rights and “for human rights throughout the world”. He added that:
“[Rustin] was denounced by former friends, because he never gave up his conviction that minorities in America could and would succeed based on their individual merit.”
In 2013 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. and in 2020 Rustin was pardoned for his 1953 sex offence conviction.
Image from www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/