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"Baynard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement,"

by Daniel Levine January/February 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

Bayard Rustin is most remembered as the organizer who made the 1963 March on Washington happen. He organized or did himself the day- to-day grunt work like arranging transportation and renting facilities. He also worked on grand plans and vision for that day. But he was much more than that. He had been one of the very few to adapt the theory and practice of Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) to race relations in the United States. NVDA was created for quite different circumstances and was counter to American traditional culture, so the process was a slow one. After 1965, Rustin favored moving “From Protest to Politics,” the title of his most famous article. He was always an integrationist who stood strongly against ideas of separatism or black nationalism. He tried, and only partly succeeded, to unite the labor movement with the drive for racial justice, because he believed both were primarily issues of economic class. His is also the story of a man finding out that moral crusades, no matter how righteous, are futile unless combined with actual power, political power.

Rustin came to the Civil Rights Movement from the international pacifist movement, where he had intimate knowledge and experience of non-violent direct action. As a member of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in the 1930s and 1940s, he ran NVDA workshops all over the country, sometimes actually trying out the method by challenging racism in department stores or restaurants. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin was always there. He was there in the 1940s, when the struggle for black equality seemed discouragingly small. He was there as the movement accelerated in the 1950s. He was with King in Montgomery and with the students when they revitalized the movement in the 1960s. When he was not physically at the center, people who were would be constantly on the telephone with him.

Rustin’s Background

Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but lived most of his life in New York, only briefly in Harlem. Since his mother was only 16 and unmarried when he was born, he was raised by his grandparents, whom he always thought of as “ma and pa.” His circle of friends, as a child and adult, always included blacks and whites. He was a superb student in high school, a talented singer and athlete. He went for a year or two to several colleges, but did not graduate from any. At City College of New York, he was, for about a year and a half, a member of the Young Communist League, because the YCL opposed American entry into World War II. Rustin was a pacifist who had joined the Society of Friends (the church of his great-grandmother) in 1936. When Hitler attacked Russia and the Communist Party abandoned pacifism, Rustin abandoned the Party.

He would not serve in the military nor co-operate in any way with Selective Service, although in later years he said that if he had known about the Holocaust, he would have served in some non-combat capacity. In the 1940s, he and other “non-cooperators” went to prison. Bayard Rustin was a difficult prisoner. He was constantly challenging racial segregation, and he was an active homosexual. He had discovered his homosexuality as a teenager, and was for decades tortured about it. He considered homosexuality wrong, in religious terms, a sin. In prison, he was punished for it by isolation. His isolation was in the prison library, which in fact was a wonderful opportunity, given his passion for learning. In 1945, Rustin and other pacifists were stunned by news of the atomic bomb. They felt that all other crusades had to be suspended in the face of this threat to all life. He became a model prisoner, and was released in March of 1947.

The half dozen years after his release were ones of whirlwind activity. He moved into an apartment on Mott Street in New York City, a building filled with reformers and activists. He began talking with George Houser, who was also thinking about how NVDA could be applied to race relations, about a “Journey of Reconciliation,” a bus trip through the segregated South by an interracial group. The Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate travel in 1946, but the decision was not enforced. A “Journey of Reconciliation” would challenge state segregation laws and perhaps bring the whole question of segregation to national attention. The Journey began in Washington in April of 1947, going not into the deep South, but in the border states. There was a bit of violence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Bayard and others were arrested, and the Journey went on, but no further south than Tennessee, then back to Washington. If Rustin, Houser and the others hoped to bring segregation to national attention, they failed. The Journey was only noticed by the Afro-American press, but it became the model for the “Freedom Rides” of 1961.

Rustin’s trial was a year later. After a 15-minute deliberation, he and another rider were convicted and given a sentence of 30 days on a chain gang. The verdict was of course appealed.

Also in 1947, Rustin ran, and A. Philip Randolph chaired, a “League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation.” In March of 1948, President Truman met with a number of “Negro” leaders, including Randolph, and issued a somewhat ambiguous order desegregating the military. Randolph thought the order was adequate, and the League disbanded.

While the appeal of his North Carolina conviction was going on, Rustin traveled to India, via London, to a world peace conference. This was the first of many trips to London, and he developed an English accent, which he could turn off and on. When and why he spoke with that accent is not clear. In India, Rustin traveled and spoke widely, becoming a much admired figure, and met the major Indian leaders. A few weeks later, he was on the chain gang in North Carolina. He served, with “good time,” 22 days. His account of those days, as reported in the New York Post, August 22-26, 1949, was one factor which led to abolition of the chain gang in the state.

During the Summer of 1951, a black family rented an apartment in Cicero, Illinois, and was greeted by a white mob. Walter White from the NAACP was there, and FOR sent Houser and Rustin. The latter two drew up a sensible practical proposal for the Cicero Committee of the Chicago Council Against Racial and Religious Discrimination, a private group, saying that mob violence must not be allowed to prevail. The proposal was ignored, and the black family felt they had to move out. Mob violence prevailed. Later, however, the police chief and several town officials were convicted under federal law for not doing their duty.
NVDA had failed on the Journey of Reconciliation, but the threat of civil disobedience succeeded in the campaign to end segregation in the military. NVDA had failed in Cicero, but eventually there was progress with federal help. Rustin was gradually coming to the conclusion that NVDA needed the aid of political power to make any progress.

NVDA had been developed in an anti-colonial campaign. Perhaps it could be further developed in other anti-colonial battles, perhaps Africa. In 1952, under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and FOR, Bayard attended another world peace conference in England, then a quick stop in Paris, then to Africa, particularly the Gold Coast (later renamed Ghana), to meet Kwame Nkrumah and other African leaders. But it would be hard to find any effect on the anti-colonial process from the American NVDA effort.

Rustin returned to the United States and resumed his writing and lecturing all over the country. He was by now the leading theorist and practitioner of Non-Violent Direct Action in the country, was in fact “Mr. NVDA.” He was an obvious choice for a leadership position in FOR or some organization in the growing Civil Rights Movement.

Then he was arrested in Los Angeles, not for any pacifist or civil rights activity, but on a “morals” (that is, homosexuality) charge. In January of 1953, he was convicted and sentenced to prison. He was devastated; again overcome by guilt. His friends and associates, far from being supportive, added their criticism to his own sense of distress. “I know now,” he wrote in 1953, “that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself.” On his release, he resigned from FOR (or was asked to), but with the support of FOR’s chairman, A.J. Muste, sought a “cure” with the help of a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, Robert Ascher, concluded that Rustin would not change, and the two ended up discussing simply how Rustin might be more discreet. He was now unacceptable to FOR, and even to the theoretically tolerant Society of Friends. He eventually found a home with another tiny pacifist organization, the War Resisters League. During the next few years, Bayard Rustin came more to accept himself without guilt.

Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph

At about the same time, a then unknown young minister in Montgomery, Alabama was chairing a bus boycott and something called the Montgomery Improvement Association. A. Philip Randolph, long-time activist and head of the largest “Negro” union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and some other Northern activists thought there ought to be some way to help. Since the boycott was a non-violent action, it was obvious that “Mr. NVDA” might be helpful. Rustin went to Alabama. In Montgomery, Rustin and King hit it off immediately, and the two talked for many hours about the theory, theology and practice of Non-Violent Direct Action. Rustin always denied that he taught King about NVDA, but King admitted he had not thought deeply about it before. Soon Rustin had to leave, as local authorities and the Montgomery newspaper began to find out about this outsider, this ex-Communist and homosexual who was helping the boycott. So Rustin returned to New York and with others created “In Friendship,” a Northern group supporting King. Gradually, Martin Luther King became better known, and also NVDA, four initials hitherto virtually unknown to most Americans.

On a subsequent visit to Montgomery, Rustin suggested to King that organizing in one Southern city was not enough. There needed to be a South-wide organization protesting against segregation in its many forms and in many places. Probably other people were thinking along the same lines, and after various meetings and conferences, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in 1957. No one paid much attention, and virtually no one realized that SCLC would become perhaps the best known of the direct action organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. While the boycott was still going on, Rustin wrote a series of Working Papers. In one of these, he analyzed why the movement was succeeding and suggested that these rules applied to other actions: The protest must be related to the objective; the participants must be those actually aggrieved; the participants must constantly talk about methods and rededicate themselves to the theory and practice of NVDA. If these principles were ignored, as they frequently were, particularly in the North, the protest action often failed.

When, in 1963, A. Philip Randolph chose Bayard Rustin as Deputy Director of the March on Washington, he chose the person who had the ability and experience to carry out a successful demonstration. Randolph had threatened such a march in 1941 in order to get “Negro” workers into the defense industries, and Rustin had been the “Youth Organizer” for that march. That march did not have to take place, because President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order (8802) which officially prohibited racial discrimination in defense plants, but the “March on Washington Movement” continued formally to exist, and Randolph became known as “Mr. March.” This “non-march” was the beginning of Rustin’s experience organizing demonstrations.

In one of Rustin’s “Working Papers” for what became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he recommended that the emerging organization should stress the need for increased Negro voting—which would require federal support. The first action of the SCLC was therefore a “Prayer Pilgrimage” in May of 1957. Randolph, Wilkins and Martin Luther King were co-chairs, and Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, a vigorous long-time NAACP organizer, in fact organized it. The Prayer Pilgrimage took place on May 17, 1957, with perhaps 15,000 people attending. Martin Luther King delivered the most memorable speech. “Give us the right to vote,” he cried. National media took almost no notice of the pilgrimage, and the right to vote was not guaranteed by federal action until 1965.

Organizing Marches

As the Civil Rights Movement gathered momentum, as Southern opposition to school integration mounted, Randolph, as official chairman, but again with Bayard doing the actual planning, organized a Youth March for Integrated Schools in 1958. It was essentially a Northern operation, with strong support from labor unions. Bayard would always continue to believe that the labor movement and Civil Rights Movement could be allies. The March on October 15 had about 10,000 participants. There were stirring speeches, including one by Martin Luther King, read by Coretta Scott King, because her husband was in the hospital recovering from an assassination attempt in Harlem by a deranged black woman. Harry Belafonte, who, along with Roy Wilkins and Jackie Robinson, had also delivered rousing speeches, led a delegation to the White House. President Eisenhower did not receive them, nor even send a staff member. They left a message with a guard at the gate.

Rustin organized a Second Youth March for Integrated Schools for April 1959. This time, there were over 300 buses and perhaps 25,000 people. Again, the event was hardly noticed by the national media. Again, Martin Luther King gave a rousing speech. Again, Harry Belafonte led a delegation to the White House. This time they were received by Gerald P. Morgan, the only black member of Eisenhower’s staff, who assured the delegation that the President was sympathetic to ending discrimination. Rustin told the crowd, “When we come back with 50,000, I promise you, the President will be in town. And when we bring 100,000, Congress will sit in special session.”

Beside SCLC, other civil rights organizations were springing up or getting renewed energy, based on the ideas and methods of NVDA. There was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Spring of 1960, inspired by Rustin’s friend Ella Baker, and the 1961 Freedom Rides, spearheaded by a revived Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), based explicitly on the Journey of Reconciliation. SCLC was no longer just a few Baptist ministers, but was a presence in the national consciousness. There was the confrontation in Birmingham, with police dogs and water cannon directed against the demonstrators. President Kennedy introduced what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Movement had become the most important series of events on the national scene.

By 1963, Randolph, Rustin and others were considering a new march, with more general support, for racial justice, to be part of this burgeoning stream. And Bayard Rustin was the obvious man to make the march happen. Randolph’s original idea had been a march to protest widespread “Negro” unemployment. In June, President Kennedy introduced what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the aims of the march broadened. Randolph again was the titular head, but Rustin would do the actual work.

This was to be the big one, the one Rustin had talked about four years before. The headquarters on West 130th Street in Harlem was a beehive of activity: arranging bus schedules, renting the public address system, being sure there were enough portable toilets. and, probably the most time-consuming, raising the money. Of course the NAACP contributed, but most of the civil rights organizations had no money. Contributions came in from the United Auto Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and the largest single donation was from the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.

The march was tightly controlled. Other groups could not blur the message. All placards had to be approved by the central office: “We march for Jobs and Freedom,” “End Segregation Now,” and the like. The marchers were to come, march, hear music and the speeches, and then leave the city. Rustin knew that any potential white disruptions would come from outside the city, so he arranged with the Washington police department to have white officers on the periphery of the downtown.

There was also great fun at headquarters. Rustin was a great joker, high-spirited. He once joked that what he wanted on his tombstone was, “This Nigger Had Fun,” and he did.

There was opposition to the march and of course to Rustin himself, mostly but not entirely from Southerners. President Kennedy at first opposed the march, but then tried to capture it. Roy Wilkins came to the headquarters one day and said that Kennedy wanted to speak. But the march was supposed to be the people speaking to the President, not the other way around. After a brief pause, during which Rustin pretended to go to the restroom, he told Wilkins that some Negroes might stone the President, a point Rustin invented on the spot—and the request from Kennedy disappeared.

Early on the day of the march, Rustin, in fact full of doubts, was interviewed on the Washington Mall. The reporters pointed out that not many people were there yet. Rustin consulted papers on a clipboard and said in his best English accent, “Everything is precisely on schedule.” In fact, the paper was a blank sheet. But soon the people began to come. We know now that the march was a triumph. There were perhaps 250,000 people there, black and white. And yet, what really changed? There was the longest Congressional filibuster in American history against Kennedy’s bill, there was the bombing of the girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham. The civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama were beaten. “It proved,” said Rustin, “that we were capable of being one people.” But was anything else accomplished?

With the success of the march, Rustin became a national figure. He spoke to many groups, often colleges. His talks were moving, but rationally moving. With his six-foot two height, he might lean over the podium and might say, “There are three points we have to remember,” then would raise one finger, then after a sentence or two get to point two, two fingers, a few more words, then three fingers. He would never have to pause to say “umm” or to find a word. After the talk, he would often stay up late talking with the students, perhaps sitting in the student union, smoking, with his long legs stretched out in front of him.

Post-March on Washington

In the Spring and Summer of 1964, civil rights activists, mostly black but with some white participation, organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The MFDP’s aim was to challenge the all-white segregated Mississippi delegation to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City that August. The MFDP appeared before the Credentials Committee, and Fannie Lou Hamer made an eloquent case. Lyndon Johnson, worried about a Southern walk-out, offered, through subordinates, two seats “at large”—that is, not representing any state. The question was, should the MFDP accept?  Rustin, Martin Luther King and other national leaders urged acceptance at a meeting of the MFDP on August 26 in the basement of a nearby Baptist Church.  While Rustin was making his case, someone from the delegation shouted, “You’re a traitor, Bayard, a traitor. Sit down!” The MFDP turned down the “compromise” and went home. But the national Democratic Party resolved that in the future they would not recognize any delegation chosen on a segregated basis. This was the beginning of Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement diverging.

In the Summer of 1964, Harlem exploded with fires, smashing store windows, looting. Rustin, walking around the streets, realized he did not know any one. His work had been with other parts of society. Noting racism in the North, Martin Luther King wanted to move SCLC north, say to Chicago. Bayard was against it, and the attempt proved futile. In fact, while King’s international reputation was growing—he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and Bayard accompanied him to Oslo—his stature in the United States, as well as the whole NVDA phase of the Civil Rights Movement, was in decline. In 1965, King, against Rustin’s advice, went out to Los Angeles after the Watts riot. Rustin went with him, and the two found that they were regarded as irrelevant by the young people in the streets.

What was in ascendance was some form of nationalism or separatism. Rustin understood how frustration might lead that way, but called the Black Power movement “frustration stupidity.” Rustin was convinced that much of that frustration stemmed from economic as well as racial injustice. With Leon Keyserling, formerly chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, he worked out a large program of public works which they called the “Freedom Budget for All Americans” [See accompanying article, p. 9.] Thousands of copies of a pamphlet detailing the program were sent out, but the Freedom Budget got nowhere.

Kennedy came to support the Civil Rights Movement both tactically and, as he said, as a moral issue. Lyndon Johnson looked into the TV camera and announced, “we shall overcome.” The Civil Rights Movement was now part of the Democratic Party. Bayard Rustin understood that the realities of American politics had changed, and the Civil Rights Movement had to change too, as he wrote in “From Protest to Politics” (Commentary 39: February 1965, 25-31). Rustin, the former pacifist, was even ambiguous about the Vietnam War. We were now part of the process, he argued, and we should no longer act as outsiders. When his pacifist friends were outraged at his support of a man waging a war in Vietnam, he responded, “You don’t understand power. You guys”—and he meant the whole pacifist movement— “can’t deliver a single pint of milk to the kids in Harlem, and Lyndon Johnson can.” Many of his former allies thought he had been seduced by power and gone over to the other side, the establishment side. Rustin was always interested in actual results more than moral purity. And in fact the “establishment,” in the person of J. Edgar Hoover, thought he was enough of a radical threat that the F.B.I. tapped his telephone.

Rustin was a vigorous anti-communist, but he still had a basically class-based view of social issues. A. Philip Randolph, the AFL-CIO and others, in the hopes of uniting the civil rights and labor movements, founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1965. The aim of the APRI was to train young blacks to pass the apprenticeship exams of various unions, particularly the construction trades. These unions had been obstinate in resisting enrollment of black members. The program proved so successful that soon it became a separate organization and received aid from the U.S. Department of Labor. But Rustin was perceived by members of the civil rights groups as being pro-labor—that is, supportive of a group antagonistic to racial justice. They would have preferred quotas mandated by the federal government. Rustin argued that working with the unions would, in the long run, be more productive than creating the sort of antagonism that quotas would bring. He knew that means and ends were inextricably intertwined. The training program was ended when Ronald Reagan became President.

Rustin was further alienated from the new Civil Rights Movement by the controversy in Ocean Hill-Browns­ville, a black neighborhood in Brooklyn. The City tried to “decentralize” the schools by establishing local school boards with somewhat ill-defined power. In May of 1968, the school board for Ocean Hill-Brownsville fired (or “reassigned”) several teachers without the due process required by the contract with the United Federation of Teachers. To Randolph and Rustin, the issue was clear: Union members had been fired illegally. Also, Rustin pointed out, community control could become the equivalent of states’ rights, whereby white communities could conspire against black teachers. To black activists, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board had exercised their rights—a case of Black Power manifest. The issue was further complicated by the fact that most teachers in New York City were Jewish. There were clear anti-Jewish statements from supporters of the local school board. Rustin supported the union, and that assured his permanent schism with what seemed to be the Northern version of the civil rights organization.

In fact, Bayard Rustin no longer had a place in racial politics. He turned again to the international realm. He loved to travel anyway, and joined the International Rescue Committee. The IRC had been originally established to aid Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, but now concentrated on refugees all over the world, particularly Southeast Asia. He was often in Thailand, for example, bringing attention and aid to Vietnamese refugees. He was also a frequent election observer as democracy, or at least elections, spread around the world. Rustin was now a celebrity, perhaps, but no longer an engaged participant in social change.

In 1987, he traveled to Haiti as an election observer. On his return, he seemed to sicken, and not improve. He was taken to the hospital, where, early in the morning of August 24, he died of cardiac arrest.

Looking back on the civil rights era, one is tempted to say, “If only. . . .” If only the March on Washington coalition could have held together; if only integration had been more real and less token; if only NVDA could have been successfully modified to suit Northern conditions; if only the War on Poverty could have been expanded; if only loud black voices for separatism had been more quickly rejected; if only conservative politicians had not exploited racial fears. And yet there has been slow progress, mostly on the basis that Bayard Rustin was predicting. He could not have foreseen the election of Barack Obama, but he would have been in Grant Park that night, with tears in his eyes.

Daniel Levine is Professor of History Emeritus at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, where he has taught since 1963. He drew this article from his 2000 book. Baynard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement (Rutgers Univ. Press). Among his other books is Poverty and Society: The Growth of the American Welfare State in International Comparison. (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1988).

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