On April 1, West Chester University celebrated the town’s unsung hero: Bayard Rustin. Cited by many as “our American Gandhi,” the African-American man influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the 1963 March on Washington, and fearlessly dealt with his homosexuality in a turbulent time to do so. Yet, history books fail to mention Rustin, and perhaps the only students familiar with his name are those who attend Bayard Rustin High School in the West Chester School District.
Dr. John D’Emilio spent Monday evening in Sykes Theater trying to explain history’s puzzling amnesia regarding Rustin. In the process, the audience learned the details of Rustin’s rise from a small-town West Chester boy to a champion of social change. Often complicated and always fascinating, Rustin’s life as explained by Dr. D’Emilio certainly gave inspiration and food for thought to those in attendance.
D’Emilio, a professor of history and women’s and gender studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, began writing a book about the 1960s when his research of Rustin derailed his plan. D’Emilio found Rustin interesting enough to be the only subject of his book: “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.”
Rustin, a Quaker, began protesting as a high school student in West Chester against the town’s segregation. Both movie theaters and restaurants were sites of the teenage Rustin’s nonviolent protests. He later moved to Harlem and became involved in small organizations dedicated to social change such as the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation.
His talents truly took flight when he joined forces with King and began mentoring the minister on Gandhian tactics of passive resistance. Rustin’s influence hit its zenith in 1963 when he organized the March on Washington.
The spotlight had found Rustin, but it did not always work to his advantage. Rustin’s homosexuality created a public discomfort that jeopardized his effectiveness. A trailblazer for Gay Rights, Rustin never shrunk from his true identity. Unfortunately, his bold self-acceptance came at a time when the U.S. was infected with a terrible homophobia. His name was never included on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s important documents because King was blackmailed into keeping Rustin at a distance or being exposed as having an affair with Rustin.
Furthermore, Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics” turned some of his followers against him. The essay urged activists that protest is not enough. They must become involved in the political system, rather than work against it, in order to have a say in legislature. Many people saw this essay as Rustin selling out. Yet, Rustin remained committed to his ideals and even watched as President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Though bad timing was something which plagued Rustin’s life, Dr. D’Emilio’s lecture on the activist could not have been more perfectly planned. Referencing the voter registration laws and mass incarcerations that “are trying to systematically undo the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement,” not to mention the trans-phobic and homophobic legislature standing in the way of our country’s equality, D’Emilio insisted that our study of Rustin can be used to discover the path to social change.
D’Emilio illuminated a few lessons from Rustin’s life that everyone in the audience can use to make a difference in the world. Rustin’s omission from history texts teaches that unknown people, even regular students from West Chester, are necessary components in social change. Furthermore, Rustin’s commitment to non-violence, progress, and unity urges us to analyze our strategies for social change. Finally, Rustin’s life teaches us about hope. Rustin himself said, “The gods did not require that we succeed in our endeavors. They simply require that we not stop trying.”
D’Emilio’s book, “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” Rustin’s own essay, “From Protest to Politics,” and the documentary “Brother Outsider,” (available to watch instantly on Netflix) are all excellent sources of information for those interested in learning more about Rustin’s life.
Monday’s event marked West Chester University’s second year of publicly celebrating Rustin. The university hopes to continue the celebration each year in the hopes of bringing awareness to the remarkable life of a fearless man to whom our nation owes a great deal of thanks.
Molly Herbison is a second-year student majoring in English. She can be reached at MH757997@wcupa.edu.