Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester on 17th March, 1910. For the first ten years of his life he thought that Janifer Rustin and Julia Rustin were his parents. In fact they were his grandparents and his real parents were Archie Hopkins and Florence Rustin, the woman he thought was his sister. Florence was only seventeen and unmarried when she gave birth to Bayard.
Rustin was influenced by the religious and political beliefs of his grandmother, Julia Rustin. A pacifist, Julia was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and some of its leaders, such as William Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, sometimes stayed with the family while on their tours of the country.
As a young man Rustin campaigned against Jim Crow laws in West Chester. One of his school friends later said: "Some of us were ready to give up the fight and accept the status quo, but he never would. He had a strong inner spirit."
In 1932, Rustin entered Wilberforce University. Founded by white methodists in 1856 for the benefit of African Americans, the university was named after William Wilberforce, one of the British leaders of the campaign against the slave-trade. However, he left in 1936 without taking his final exams.
Rustin moved to Harlem and began studying at New York City College. He soon became involved in the campaign to free the nine African Americans that had been falsely convicted for raping two white women on a train. Known as the Scottsboro Case, Rustin was radicalized by what he believed was an obvious case of white racism. It was at this time (1936) that Rustin joined the American Communist Party. As Rustin later pointed out, "the communists were passionately involved in the civil rights movement so they were ready-made for me."
Rustin had a fine voice and sung in local folk clubs with Josh White. In September, 1939, Rustin was recruited by Leonard De Paur to appear with Paul Robeson in the Broadway musical, John Henry. However, the show was not a success and closed after a fortnight.
In 1941 Rustin met the African American trade union leader, Philip Randolph. A member of the Socialist Party, Randolph was a strong opponent of communism and as a result of his influence, Ruskin left the American Communist Party in June, 1941.
Rustin helped Philip Randolph plan a proposed March on Washington in June, 1941, in protest against racial discrimination in the armed forces. The march was called off when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in defence industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act).
Abraham Muste, executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), who had also been involved in planning the March on Washington was impressed by Rustin's organizational abilities. In September, 1941, Muste appointed Rustin as FOR's secretary for student and general affairs.
In 1942, three members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rustin, George Houser and James Farmer, founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Members of this group were pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and his theories on how to use nonviolent resistance to achieve social change. The group were also inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America.
As a pacifist, Rustin refused to serve in the armed forces. On 12th January, 1944, Rustin was arrested and charged with violating the Selective Service Act. At his trial on 17th February, he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Other members of Congress on Racial Equality, including George Houser, Igal Roodenko and James Peck, were also imprisoned during the Second World War for refusing to join the United States Army.
While serving his sentence, Rustin organized protests against segregated seating in the dinning hall. He explained his actions in a letter to E. G. Hagerman, the prison warden: "Both morally and practically, segregation is to me a basic injustice. Since I believe it to be so, I must attempt to remove it. There are three ways in which one can deal with an injustice. (a) One can accept it without protest. (b) On can seek to avoid it. (c) One can resist the injustice non-violently. To accept it is to perpetuate it."
Rustin was released from prison on 11th June, 1946. He immediately joined with George Houser in planning a campaign against segregated transport. In early 1947, CORE announced plans to send eight white and eight black men into the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. The Journey of Reconciliation, as it became known, was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Although Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was against this kind of direct action, he volunteered the service of its southern attorneys during the campaign. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department, was strongly against the Journey of Reconciliation and warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."
The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included Bayard Rustin, Igal Roodenko, George Houser, James Peck, Joseph Felmet, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.
James Peck was arrested with Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson in Durham. After being released he was arrested once again in Asheville and charged with breaking local Jim Crow laws. In Chapel Hill Peck and four other members of the team was dragged off the bus and physically assaulted before being taken into custody by the local police.
Members of the Journey of Reconciliation team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, two of the African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, were found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable. He told Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety."
The Journey of Reconciliation achieved a great deal of publicity and was the start of a long campaign of direct action by the Congress of Racial Equality. In February 1948 the Council Against Intolerance in America gave Rustin and George Houser the Thomas Jefferson Award for the Advancement of Democracy for their attempts to bring an end to segregation in interstate travel.
After the arrest of Rosa Parks in December, 1955, after she had refused to give up her seat to a white man, Martin Luther King, a pastor at the local Baptist Church, decided to organize a protest against bus segregation. It was decided that from 5th December, black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. Rustin was asked to go to Montgomery to help organize this campaign.
Martin Luther King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued. For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration and the boycott came to an end on 20th December, 1956.
Rustin was now King's main adviser and together they formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organisation was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed." Rustin was offered the job as director of SCLC but he declined as he preferred a more flexible role in the civil rights movement.
In 1963 Rustin began organizing what became known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin was able to persuade the leaders of all the various civil rights groups to participate in the planned protest meeting at the Lincoln Memorial on 28th August.
The decision to appoint Rustin as chief organizer was controversial. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was one of those who was against the appointment. He argued that being a former member of the American Communist Party made him an easy target for the right-wing press. Although Rustin had left the party in 1941, he still retained his contacts with its leaders such as Benjamin Davis.
Wilkins also feared that the fact that Rustin had been imprisoned several times for both refusing to fight in the armed forces and for acts of homosexuality, would be used against him in the days leading up to the march. However, Martin Luther King and Philip Randolph insisted that he was the best person for the job.
Wilkins was right to be concerned about a possible smear campaign against Rustin. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, had been keeping a file on Rustin for many years. An FBI undercover agent managed to take a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was having a bath. This photograph was then used to support false stories being circulated that Rustin was having a homosexual relationship with King.
This information was now passed on to white politicians in the Deep South who feared that a successful march on Washington would persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor a proposed new civil rights act. Storm Thurmond led the campaign against Rustin making several speeches where he described him as a "communist, draft dodger and homosexual".
Most newspapers condemned the idea of a mass march on Washington. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune warned that: "If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capital they will be jeopardizing their cause. The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of unconstrained violence if Congress doesn't deliver."
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28th August, 1963, was a great success. Estimates on the size of the crowd varied from between 250,000 to 400,000. Speakers included Philip Randolph (AFL-CIO), Martin Luther King (SCLC), Floyd McKissick (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Witney Young (National Urban League) and Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO). King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech.
Rustin was highly valued by the trade union movement, and when the AFL-CIO decided in 1965 to fund a new civil rights organisation, the Philip Randolph Institute, he was asked to be its leader. Names after his close friend, Philip Randolph, Rustin worked for the organization until 1979.
In his final years Rustin was active in the protests against the Vietnam War and in the gay rights movement. In 1986 he claimed: "The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated."
Bayard Rustin died in New York on 24th August, 1987.