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Hometown heroes: Bayard Rustin (part 2)

Celine Butler, Staff Writer

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Last week, we took a look at Bayard Rustin’s youth and the ideologies and individuals that inspired his principles. This week, we get to see these principles in action, turning our attention to the boycotts and marches fathered by the noteworthy civil rights leader. In discussing these achievements, we can bring Rustin out of the shadows and celebrate the legacy of the man deemed by historian John D’Emilio as the “lost prophet” of the Civil Rights movement.

In the previous installment of this series, I mentioned Rustin’s arrest in 1947. After protesting the segregated public transit system in North Carolina, he served 21 days on the road gang for violating Jim Crow laws. What I did not mention, however, is that Rustin was one of the organizers of the Freedom Ride predecessor. In addition to a man named George Houser, Rustin began a campaign called the Journey of Reconciliation. The two sent a mix of black and white riders to travel the upper south via bus and test segregation on public transit. Because of this decision to keep the Deep South out of the tour, the campaign was met with less resistance and garnered little media attention. Though the Freedom Rides of 1961 have a greater impact on civil rights history, the Journey of Reconciliation served as the foundation for the historical event.

After his time spent in confinement, Rustin returned to the civil rights scene even more invigorated than before. In 1956, Rustin was encouraged by civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph to assist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott, taking place from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, is considered the first large-scale anti-segregation demonstration. During his time with King, Rustin shared his Gandhi-inspired protest techniques, persuading King to adopt the non-violent methods that he is so often celebrated for. Rustin’s administrative efforts helped make Martin Luther King Jr. a prominent leader in the civil rights movement while also ensuring the success of the boycott now regarded as a pivotal event in United States history.

In 1960, Rustin faced further adversity because of his homosexuality. Black leader Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was angry that Rustin and King were planning a march outside of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The Harlem Congressman felt threatened by the pair’s increasing amounts of power and influence and threatened to “reveal” that Rustin and King were having an affair. Though the “affair” was completely fictional, King, fearing for his reputation, canceled the demonstration and Rustin was forced to resign.

Fortunately for the movement, Rustin did not let this development hinder him from making further contributions. While he spent two years relatively inactive, he quickly returned to the civil rights scene and made history as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin was recruited in 1962 by A. Philip Randolph, who had a vision for the monumental event. The year 1963 would celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the date, in addition to all other details, was carefully accounted for. However, the year would also mark a seismic shift in public attitudes as police brutality was televised in Birmingham, Alabama. The nation watched in May 1963 as police in Birmingham used clubs, fire hoses and dogs against African Americans participating in nonviolent anti-segregation protests. While the Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor had been using these tactics for years, previously isolated people from all across the country finally saw the harsh reality of racism in the United States. The situation in Birmingham forced the Kennedy administration to draft new civil rights legislation, and King had renewed interest in working with Rustin and Randolph in light of these events.

Rustin and King reunited in Alabama and decided to expand the march’s focus to “jobs and freedom” instead of “freedom” alone. In an attempt to keep Rustin hidden, Rustin was appointed deputy to A. Philip Randolph who would serve as director of the march. But opponents of the civil rights movement still targeted Rustin relentlessly, despite his carefully calculated behind-the-scenes position. Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover passed Rustin’s arrest record to segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina. Thurmond spoke to the Senate shortly after receiving this information to declare that the march was being coordinated by a “pervert.” Luckily, his words carried little weight with movement leaders, as the attack came from a racist Southern politician. Unlike the last time his sexual orientation was brought under fire, movement leaders stood by him and continued to plan for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people marched through Washington, D.C. It was on that day that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most potent social and political statements of the 20th century. A year later, thanks to the efforts of individuals like Bayard Rustin, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the United States still has a long way to go in ensuring equality for all, the bill was a monumental step in the right direction.

Before his death on August 24, 1987, Rustin continued to preach for social equality. In the 1980s, Rustin became increasingly vocal about gay rights and the oppression of the gay community. Though Rustin’s status as a gay black man made him a target for subjugation in American society, Rustin armed himself with courage, fortitude and unwavering principles in the fight to make the world a better place. So while he does not have a day named after him or his face plastered on t-shirts and posters, we can still celebrate the man who permanently changed our country for the better. Though he has since passed, shining light on Bayard Rustin’s accomplishments and adopting his teachings means that we are one step closer to making the dream of equality for all a reality.

Celine Butler is a second-year student majoring in psychology with a minor in French. ✉ [email protected].

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3 Responses to “Hometown heroes: Bayard Rustin (part 2)”

  1. Robt Seda-Schreiber on April 16th, 2018 11:12 pm

    Ms. Butler, your series of articles recognizing & indeed celebrating Bayard Rustin have been oh-so-inspirational & truly wonderful to read. It is indeed far past time to preach & teach about this man who was so integral to the Movement & but for far too long has been forgotten by history & indeed shunned entirely because of whom he loved & how he identified. Just last week there was a successful effort in Rockville, MD, to get an elementary school named after him after encountering much resistance. You can read about this extraordinary act here if so inclined:
    & feel free to visit my newly-formed but powerful community activist center & educational enclave, the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice, wherein we plan to utilize this success as a catalyst to create a nationwide movement to have schools across the country named for other heroes & folks of import in the LGBTQIA community @
    Muchas gracias & be well & be good.


    Robt Seda-Schreiber Reply:

    Sorry above link is wrong. Should read
    Can it be changed in comment please?


  2. Robert Bernardo on April 23rd, 2018 11:01 am

    Another great article in this series!


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Hometown heroes: Bayard Rustin (part 2)