Can We Honor Bayard Rustin?

March 9, 2012

One hundred years ago next week was born Bayard Rustin, the man who was the principal logistical organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That march took place on August 28, 1963 and was attended by upwards of a quarter of a million people. Bayard Rustin was a Quaker and a gay man.

A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was the civil rights leader who initiated and built the leadership coalition for the March. Other leaders included James Farmer (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkens (NAACP), Whitney Young (Urban League), and Martin Luther King, Jr., who (of course) gave the most memorable speech at the gathering.

The detailed organizational and logistical work, however, was accomplished by Rustin, who was a long-time associate of Randolph’s and King’s. As the Wikipedia entry on the March says, “Rustin built and led the team of activists and organizers who publicized the march and recruited the marchers, coordinated the buses and trains, provided the marshals, and set up and administered all of the logistic details of a mass march in the nation’s capital.”

Many, including some civil rights leaders, expected the March to fail. Without Rustin, it certainly would have failed. Because it succeeded, the nation was on its way to passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rustin had also organized the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, the first of the Freedom Rides to test the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel.

During his adult life, Rustin lived in New York City and belonged to 15th Street Meeting, New York Yearly Meeting. Before and after World War II, he worked for A.J. Muste at the Fellowship of Reconciliation as a field organizer. During the war he spent three years in jail as a pacifist, having refused designation as a conscientious objector because that designation was not available to others. Later he worked for the War Resisters League. He was a principal adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and shared in the work of building the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

During the 1950s, Rustin was a key member of a study group at the AFSC that wrote Speak Truth to Power, an important statement of the Quaker commitment to non-violence. At his request, however, his name was omitted from the list of authors when it was published.

Why? Because he was a homosexual. Not one to hide his sexual orientation, he was arrested on January 21, 1953 for lewd vagrancy in Pasadena, California. Prior to 1962, commission of a homosexual act was against the law in every state of the United States. It was not until 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional (in Lawrence v. Texas) state laws criminalizing private, non-commercial sexual activity between consenting adults.

In September 2010, the Board of Directors of the American Friends Service Committee approved a minute restoring the name of Bayard Rustin as one of the principal authors of Speak Truth to Power. The version of this work now available on the AFSC website now includes his name among the authors.

In his 1948 William Penn Lecture, Bayard Rustin asked, “How can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we cannot, in time of crisis, find the way to love our brothers whom we have seen?” There is a terrific documentary available on Rustin called Brother Outsider. A high school is now named for him in West Chester (PA), where he grew up.

Are we Quakers prepared to fully embrace, even honor, Bayard Rustin as one of us, as someone who loved others and worked tirelessly for peace and justice? Or do we want to say (as, for example, Indiana Yearly Meeting’s 1982 Minute on Homosexuality now says), that he was a sinner whose service and leadership we would not welcome?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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