March 17, 2012, marked what would be the 100th birthday of the immensely influential civil rights figurehead and West Chester native, Bayard Rustin. The event itself is a historical milestone, so little celebration is necessary to remember all the impressive accomplishments of this visionary freedom fighter- his bold action speaks for itself.
West Chester University acknowledged the occasion by showing the documentary, “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” in Main Hall 168 to remember and celebrate this man’s life. In addition to the memory of his birth, there are multiple scholarships offered in his name, including The Bayard Rustin Award for Compassion and Courage and The Bayard Rustin Book Scholarship.
Rustin was a leading strategist in the iconic civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968. Long before the Martin Luther King, Jr. frenzy came into the limelight, he was putting his life on the line to advocate his vision of non-violence and racial equality behind the scenes. Although one of the most crucial figures in this political crusade, he remained out of the spotlight due to his sexuality during that conservative period of time. Rustin was cast out because of who he was, but will be forever remembered for what he did.
From the beginning of his life, it appears that Rustin was destined to fight for justice and resist the inequality that surrounded him. He was born in 1912 and had Quaker schooling by his grandmother, Julia Rustin, who was a founding member of the local chapter of the NAACP in Pennsylvania. Rustin moved to Harlem during the socially tumultuous 1930s and experimented with the Communist Party, but quickly found himself more at home in A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization. He took a deep interest in fighting racism after the prosecution of the Scottsboro boys, nine black youth in Alabama who were falsely charged with raping a white woman. Rustin later joined the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to protest discrimination in the military.
Throughout the 1940s, Rustin’s visionary advocacy for equality made him a crucial pioneer of the civil rights movement. In 1947, he assisted in initiating the iconic Freedom Ride. He founded the Congress of Racial Equality, which challenged racial segregation on interstate busses through the use of civil disobedience, a decade before Rosa Parks’ infamous arrest for doing the same thing. He later resisted the military draft and was imprisoned for this firm commitment to non-violence.
In 1948, he journeyed to India in an effort to learn the practice of nonviolent civil resistance directly from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. While working with Ghandi, he adopted the philosophy of non-violent resistance, a protest tactic that soon became characteristic of the civil rights movement. Between 1947 and 1952, he also met with leaders of Ghana and Nigeria’s independence movements. He recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s position of leadership and made moves to support him, such as organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In August 1963, he acted as the chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment. The march was headed by A. Philip Randolph, who was the leading African-American labor-union president and socialist at the time. Rustin’s participation in the march was crucial and he organized many of the main components, including podium speakers, traffic directors, and security components.
Bayard Rustin founded and became director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which coordinated the AFL-CIO’s efforts on civil rights and economic justice. They promoted integration of all-white unions and pressed for the unionization of African American workers. He also worked regularly as a columnist for the AFL-CIO newspaper.
After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rustin turned his focus to politics. He forged the crucial bond between the civil rights movement, Democratic Party, and labor unions, which subsequently became responsible for much of the monumental civil rights legislation in the 1960s. He suggested that “the civil rights movement had left the period of protest and moved to politics,” where the African-American community then needed to ally with the labor movement. Rustin contributed to both the economic and political sides of the labor unions through supporting the social-democratic politics and the unions. In 1972, Rustin became national co-chairman of the Socialist Party of America.
Bayard Rustin was faced with great difficulty throughout his life, especially for his sexual orientation during time and place that forbade him to be who he was. He was arrested for a casual sexual encounter in 1953 and was constantly criticized and publicly attacked, even by fellow civil rights leaders. A.J. Muste banned him from the fellowship because of this. Some believed that due to his sexual orientation, he was a pervert and could have immoral influence on the cause. To avoid the berating, Rustin rarely appeared as a public spokesperson for his cause and instead remained influential behind the scenes. In the 1970s, he became an advocate for gay and lesbian causes.
“Indeed, if you want to know whether today people believe in democracy, if you want to know whether they are true democrats, if you want to know whether they are human rights activists, the question to ask is, ‘What about gay people?'” Rustin said in a 1986 speech.
Rustin had a very kind side to him, going on numerous journeys to aid those in need. He served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. Being an outsider himself, he made sure to care for those he saw in need of assistance. His life mission was to help the disadvantaged, and he achieved great thi
ngs in his efforts. He believed in standing up for what he felt was right, and once said, “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”
Bayard Rustin died on August 24, 1987, while doing humanitarian work in Haiti. If he were still alive today, he would most likely be celebrated for his entire self. Although American society has a long way to go before true equality is achieved, it is because of visionaries like Bayard Rustin that progress continues to be made. WCU’s event recognized Rustin for not only his monumental efforts with the civil rights movement, but the strides he made for the LGBTQA community, who were living in fear of ridicule. He worked toward a time when every voice, no matter what race or sexual orientation, is heard equally and embraced without hesitation.
Leah Skye is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies, with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at LS685444@wcupa.edu.