Bayard Rustin: PA Native, Unsung Hero of the 1963 March on Washington, Lifelong Activist

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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held on August 28, 1963. One year before LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act and two years before he signed the Voting Rights Act, over a quarter million people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial to demand racial and economic justice. It was a groundbreaking Washington DC protest for its size and the television coverage it garnered, and it’s considered a watershed moment in the public life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because it was there that he gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.

Today, right now, the civil rights leaders of our time are retreading those same steps, marching that same march, to once again demand both racial and economic justice on the (close to) fiftieth anniversary of that fateful day.

And so, I’m taking the occasion to share with you the story of a man who was born in 1912 and lived till his twenties in Pennsylvania who I’m hoping you’ve heard of, but unless this happens to be something you’re knowledgeable about, you may not have. I just heard of him recently myself, and although I put effort into keeping up on state political news (which tends to include important historical stories when they arise), I happened to hear of him because I am a loyal viewer of Democracy Now! and they recently reported his story.

In his own day, Bayard Rustin was a minority within a minority who tirelessly agitated for change, spending nights in jail opposing U.S. policy at home and abroad. He was an African American fighting against segregation, a gay man fighting against homophobia, and a pacifist fighting against endless warfare. Rustin was a key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King and introduced him to Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence. He helped Dr. King start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Six years later, Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, rallying hundreds of thousands of people for economic justice, full employment, voting rights and equal opportunity. … In later years, Bayard Rustin spoke publicly about the importance of equal rights for gay men and lesbians, suggesting it was the new frontier of the civil rights movement. On August 24, 1987, Bayard Rustin died of a perforated appendix. He was survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years.

You can watch part of Bayard Rustin’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington in this clip from Democracy Now! at 37:45 or just read the following block quote if that’s your thing:

We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation—no compromise, no filibuster—and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?

Democracy Now! hosted a roundtable discussion about Bayard Rustin with Walter Naegle, Bayard Rustin’s partner from 1977 till his death in 1987 and now archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate, John D’Emilio, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the author of the award-winning biography of Bayard Rustin called Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, and Julian Bond, leading civil rights activist, former chair of the board of the NAACP, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a state legislator in Georgia for over two decades, and author of the foreword to the book I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.

John D’Emilio gives an overview of Bayard Rustin’s life starting at about 41:00, referencing some of his Pennsylvania roots early on. No summary can do it justice, so if you’re interested, I highly recommend giving it a watch.

At 44:00, there is another clip of Bayard Rustin himself speaking, and here you can watch him talk about encountering racism in his youth and how he responded to it – in West Chester, PA. (Or read the following block quote if that’s your thing.)

I once went into the little restaurant next to the Warner Theatre, and—can you believe it?—there was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion in which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood. I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent-minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out, because they took up a collection.

At 45:00 there’s a clip from the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (which some of these others are from also) that features someone reading a Rustin quote about how he was influenced by Ghandi followed by some clips of a reporter interviewing Ghandi.

Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman notes, “When you actually look at the Life magazine cover of the march [on Washington in 1963], it wasn’t Dr. King, it was A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. … Three weeks before the March on Washington, Senator Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina segregationist, publicly attacked Bayard Rustin on the floor of the Senate. He read reports of Rustin’s arrest for homosexual behavior from a decade earlier. In this clip from the film Brother Outsider, Senator Thurmond accuses Rustin of immoral behavior. Rustin responds.”

SEN. STROM THURMOND: The article states that he was convicted in 1953 in Pasadena, California, of a morals charge. The words “morals charge” are true. But this is a clear-cut case of toning down the charge. The conviction was sex perversion.

BAYARD RUSTIN: The senator is not interested in me if I were a murderer, a thief, a liar or a pervert. The senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement. He will not get away with this.

You can watch the clips of segregationist Senator Thurmond and Rustin speaking starting at 50:00. Amy Goodman than asks Walter Naegle how unusual it was that Bayard Rustin was an openly gay man all the way back to the 1940’s or earlier. Naegle responds, starting at 51:00.

I think really the main difference between somebody like Bayard Rustin and Senator Thurmond, Bayard came out of a tradition of authenticity, of openness. He was raised as a Quaker by his grandmother. And part of the Quaker values and tradition is, you know, being honest, searching for the truth and not really having secrets. And I think, as we all know, Senator Thurmond had plenty of secrets of his own, but he—and he was not quite so open about them.

Quaker values he was raised to have by his grandmother – right here in Pennsylvania.

Again, from Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman:

… there’s a funny scene in Brother [Outsider] when there is Bayard, 5:30 in the morning, on the Mall, August 28, 1963. All the press is around him, and of course there’s no one there. This is very early in the morning. The press saying, “So, see? No one’s here.” It’s 5:30 in the morning. And he said he took a white piece of paper, a blank piece of paper, that they couldn’t see it was blank, and he looked at his clock. He said, “No, everything is going according to plan right now.” But he said he had no idea how many people would come.

As much as I tried to summarize all the most important points, I cannot emphasize enough that if you are interested in this you really ought to put in the time to watch the whole thing, there’s even more to the story. In addition to that segment, the roundtable discussion continued in a web exclusive. There’s about 40 minutes total between the first video and the web exclusive, which starts off talking more in depth about the 1963 March on Washington and Bayard Rustin’s role in it.

One story from the web exclusive I find particularly interesting is about what apparently would have been the original March on Washington in the 1940’s while FDR was president, which Bayard Rustin was also a leading organizer for. It got called off late in the planning when FDR issued an executive order some of the organizers felt sufficiently met their demands, but Bayard Rustin was not happy about it and fought the decision to cancel the march. Many of the issues from the 1963 march that eventually happened are unfortunately still unresolved and the focus of activists in 2013, but there is another modern parallel in this aspect of the story going back to FDR’s day.

President Obama is viewed by some on the left as the next FDR and viewed by others also on the left as the next George W. Bush. Personally, I think President Obama has made the most progressive policy changes in the United States of all presidents since LBJ – but admitting that that isn’t a particularly high bar and comes up very short of matching the fundamental change of FDR. With that disclosed, I think a lot of left-wing anti-Obama rhetoric misses the big picture, and that big picture includes left-wing critics of our revered FDR. One of the FDR books I have has a chapter that begins with how some left-wing publications accused New Deal legislation – upon its passage – of being so weak that it wouldn’t really make a difference. The self-same case I’ve heard hurtled at Obama by some on the left. So for me and hopefully you this is an ironically fresh reminder from the 1940’s that no president, no matter how sympathetic to the left, cannot do what the left wants all the time, and will inevitably face harsh criticism from those on the left. (But that doesn’t mean they’re not a president enacting progressive legislation and changing society for the better.) Even Obama, even FDR. Makes ya wonder if Obama will be revered by the left 80 years from now the way FDR is today, doesn’t it?

Back on topic, you can hear the Democracy Now! roundtable’s discussion on Bayard Rustin’s experience with the 1940’s March-on-Washington-that-wasn’t starting at 6:22 in the web exclusive.

In the 1960’s, Bayard Rustin was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. Walter Naegle discusses Rustin’s activism in opposition to the war including his influence on MLK while MLK decided whether or not to focus on opposing the Vietnam War starting at 10:10.

Starting at 11:45 in the web exclusive, Naegle discusses the time Bayard Rustin served in prison for refusing to serve in the army during World War II because he was a pacifist, and then there’s a clip of Bayard Rustin himself speaking about how his pacifist ideals derive from his Quaker upbringing.

I am a Quaker. And as everyone knows, Quakers, for 300 years, have, on conscientious ground, been against participating in war. I was sentenced to three years in federal prison because I could not religiously and conscientiously accept killing my fellow man.

Just like the first segment, if you are interested in this subject I highly recommend watching the web exclusive video yourself because obviously my summary can’t include everything, and believe it or not there’s even more to the story. Once again, the first segment and the web exclusive run a total of about 40 minutes.

Democracy Now! did these two segments on Bayard Rustin because:

The White House has announced it will posthumously award the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the trailblazing civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Obama will honor Rustin and 16 others, including President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and baseball great Ernie Banks, at the White House later this year.

It’s nice to be living in an era when a person who is black, gay, and pacifist with a life like Bayard Rustin’s can receive such an award. More than anyone else I can think of, Bayard Rustin fits the description of a Pennsylvania progressive hero. Perhaps like many of you, when I encounter people that think political participation doesn’t matter, one of the easiest examples I jump to to disprove that belief is the 1960’s civil rights movement and the real-life impact it had on our society. Bayard Rustin is an unsung hero of that movement, but much, much more. He was a lifelong activist that tried to push FDR to the left and was openly gay decades before he mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He died a year before I was born, so I send you a belated RIP from the realm of the as-yet-living, Mr. Rustin, and I hope that reading your story will inspire others to keep up the fight as much as it has inspired me. Special thanks to Amy Goodman and everyone else at Democracy Now! for recognizing the story of Bayard Rustin as the major story it is and enlightening me – and hopefully you – with it.

This entry was posted in Civil Rights, LGBT / Gay Rights.

One Response to Bayard Rustin: PA Native, Unsung Hero of the 1963 March on Washington, Lifelong Activist

  1. Matt Thomas says:

    Bayard Rustin never got half the credit he deserved for his work on behalf on civil rights and one can add to this too long ignored American his friend, Asa Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union Randolph founded in 1925 when African-Americans were still subject to regular lynchings in the southern U.S. and even at times in the north.
    For those unfamiliar with this great black union leader there is a first class motion picture on his early organizing efforts entitled “10,000 Black Men Named George.”
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280377/