With his passionate commitment to civil and labor rights and his outsized organizing talents, Bayard Rustin helped to shape the Civil Rights Movement. Because he was gay and, as a young man, a member of a communist organization, his name is not as widely known as are those of other Black freedom fighters of his time. But it should be: Rustin contributed to changing the course of U.S. history.
Fighter on many fronts. Rustin was born in West Chester, Pa., in 1912 into a family that instilled in him strong Quaker values of justice, nonviolence and equality. They were incredibly supportive of him, not only when he staged a sit-in to protest a restaurant that served the white members of his high school football team but excluded him, but also when he told his grandmother he preferred the companionship of men.
Rustin was a socialist and labor organizer before the Civil Rights Movement erupted. He collaborated with A. Philip Randolph to unionize Pullman sleeping car porters and maids in 1925 and joined the Communist Youth League in the 1930s. He broke from the league after the Communist Party line flipped to support U.S. entry into World War II and the league ordered him to stop pursuing desegregation of the military.
He worked with the Fellowship of Reconciliation on behalf of conscientious objectors and supported the Congress of Racial Equality in fighting for integration, voting rights, and the civil liberties and property of Japanese Americans detained in concentration camps during the war.
Power of the masses. When mass production of airplanes started at the beginning of World War II, Randolph and Rustin saw an opportunity to advance Black Americans’ legal and economic status. They began planning a 1941 march on Washington with the aim of bringing 100,000 Black demonstrators to rally for integrating the defense industry and armed forces.
The march was called off after Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered factories with defense contracts to desegregate, an opening that did improve the lives of African Americans who were able to get jobs. But system-wide barriers to equality remained.
In late 1962, Randolph asked Rustin to draw up plans for what would become the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought over 250,000 people to D.C. to demand cures for the plights of U.S. Blacks. Its 10-point program included comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation; withholding federal funds from discriminatory programs; desegregation of all school districts; enforcement of the 14th Amendment which promises equal protection under the law for all citizens; federal authority to sue on behalf of civil rights; and a massive federal jobs initiative; reestablishment of the wartime Fair Employment Practice Committee; and a national minimum wage to ensure a decent standard of living.
Rustin’s leadership as the primary organizer of this historic march was largely performed out of the spotlight because of the anti-communist and homophobic tenor of the times. He had been jailed for “lewd conduct” and “vagrancy,” been imprisoned for two years as a conscientious objector, and spent 22 months on a North Carolina chain gang for protesting racism. He wrote an exposé of the horrific conditions of that jailing which led to abolishing chain gangs in the state.
However, his brilliant organizational skills made Rustin such an asset that even ministers who had been concerned about defending him to their congregations stood by him when Southern segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond attacked him as “a communist, a draft dodger and a homosexual.”
The power of this 1963 mobilization reinvigorated the Black movement for a time and put pressure on Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which incorporated some of the march’s demands.
Lessons of Rustin’s life: a mixed takeaway. But the politicians in Congress proved to be unworthy partners. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, top Democrats rejected the demands of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to integrate its all-white state delegation.
Instead of backing up the courageous MFDP members, including the indomitable Fannie Lou Hamer, Rustin sided with Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and other establishment Democrats. “There is a difference between protest and politics,” he said. “The former is based on morality and the latter is based on reality and compromise. If you are going to engage in politics then you must give up protest.”
In a 1979 interview, he elaborated. “When we didn’t have the ballot box, protest was the logical way. Once you have the ballot box, protest is useless.”
The early radical had transformed. Rustin had become a pragmatist, a reformist. He placed his hopes for change in influencing the Democratic Party leftward, a failed strategy. He cautioned other civil rights leaders against opposing the Vietnam War and supported the Zionist state of Israel and imperialist U.S. foreign policies. He was no longer a fighter against the economic system of capitalism.
But he continued to be active on behalf of African American workers. In collaboration with the AFL-CIO federation, he helped found the A. Philip Randolph Institute, dedicated to bringing together Blacks in the labor movement and strengthening union-community ties. He rallied with the striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
In the 1980s, he began speaking out about gay rights. He brought the importance of the AIDS crisis to the attention of the NAACP and, in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania, linked the 1969 Stonewall rebellion to the beginnings of the Montgomery bus boycott.
The Bayard Rustin who died in 1987 was in many ways not the same man who played such an inspiring role in the 1963 March on Washington. But his contributions live on to be embraced and emulated — especially his understanding of the interlocking fate of the civil rights and workers’ movements and the necessity of interracial alliances on the basis of class.
Kristina Lee is a queer, biracial crisis counselor in San Francisco. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.