March 17, 1912 – Birthdate of Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights Activist

On this day in history, Bayard Rustin was born in Pennsylvania, moving to Harlem, New York in 1936.

Bayard Rustin was an influential civil rights activist and an advocate of nonviolence. However, he was also not only gay but a member of the Socialist Party of America, both of which were (and to some extent still are) considered anathema. (To the horrified, possibly self-hating, and closeted eyes of J. Edgar Hoover, the former affiliation was even more egregious than the latter.) Prior to 1941, Rustin had been a member of the Communist Party, and this also did not sit well with Hoover, who wielded an enormous and deleterious influence during his tenure as the head of the FBI.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin

Because of the controversy that accompanied him, Rustin took an “advisory” role to Martin Luther King, Jr., even though a great deal of King’s success was fueled by Rustin’s ideas and Rustin’s organizational work. Rustin was among the founders in 1957 of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was an instrumental organizer of the August, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech before several hundred thousand people. Rustin was careful to stay in the background, however.


(Three weeks before the August 28 march, Senator Strom Thurmond, later to be exposed for his own sexual “peccadilloes,” publicly attacked Rustin on the floor of the Senate by reading reports of his Pasadena arrest for homosexual behavior a decade earlier — documents he probably got from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.)

After the march, King distanced himself more from Rustin, afraid that he and the civil rights movement would be harmed by association with Rustin. Although Rustin continued to issue advice, he could not participate to the extent he had previously, and it was a great loss for both King and the movement.

From left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin in 1956

From left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin in 1956

Following the passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964–65, Rustin focused attention on the economic problems of working-class and unemployed African Americans.

In a brilliant analysis of the future of the civil rights movement published by Commentary Magazine in February 1964, Rustin argued:

…without making light of the human sacrifices involved in the direct-action tactics (sit-ins, freedom rides, and the rest) that were so instrumental to this achievement, we must recognize that in desegregating public accommodations, we affected institutions which are relatively peripheral both to the American socio-economic order and to the fundamental conditions of life of the Negro people.”

He asked:

What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them? The minute the movement faced this question, it was compelled to expand its vision beyond race relations to economic relations, including the role of education in modern society.”

He observed that there was a widespread assumption that “the removal of artificial racial barriers should result in the automatic integration of the Negro into all aspects of American life” and he pointed out the many ways in which the framework of existing political and economic relations actually posed a barrier to the struggle for black equality in America. As he noted then:

We are not expanding territorially, the western frontier is settled, labor organizing has leveled off, our rate of economic growth has been stagnant for a decade. And we are in the midst of a technological revolution which is altering the fundamental structure of the labor force, destroying unskilled and semi-skilled jobs—jobs in which Negroes are disproportionately concentrated. … Whatever the pace of this technological revolution may be, the direction is clear: the lower rungs of the economic ladder are being lopped off. This means that an individual will no longer be able to start at the bottom and work his way up; he will have to start in the middle or on top, and hold on tight.”

(Indeed, Eugene Robinson argues in his 2011 book Disintegration that the problem of the “broken ladder” remains true today.)

From left to right: Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Representative William Fitts Ryan (D-NY), James Farmer, and John Lewis in 1965. (Credit: Stanley Wolfson, New York World Telegram & Sun, Library of Congress)

Rustin bemoaned the situation (still true today) that:

…[politicians] apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet throw up our hands before the need for overhauling our schools, clearing the slums, and really abolishing poverty.”

Rustin’s proposals to fix the system were considered “revolutionary” because of his insistence that “the civil rights movement will be advanced only to the degree that social and economic welfare gets to be inextricably entangled with civil rights.”

In later years, Rustin became the head of the AFL–CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, which promoted the integration of formerly all-white unions and promoted the unionization of African Americans. In the 1970s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.

He also served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. He was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti when he died in 1987 at the age of 75.

On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Bayard Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle accepting the medal from President Obama. (Photo by Patsy Lynch)

Bayard Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle accepting the medal from President Obama. (Photo by Patsy Lynch)

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