Bayard Rustin: Master Organizer
By Harris Chaiklin, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work
Many people know that on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. The idea for the march came from A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a powerful union. He organized it along with King, president of SCLC, James Farmer, president of CORE, John Lewis, president of SNCC, Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP, Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League, and Bayard Rustin, president of nothing. This is an impressive array of leadership. Rustin is probably the least known name of this distinguished list. Randolph said that without Rustin there would not have been a march. His title was deputy director and chief organizer. This column examines Rustin’s relative neglect by the civil rights and social work establishment.
He was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania and died on August 24, 1987. Raised by his grandparents, his Quaker grandmother had a great influence on him. She was a woman of many parts. Though true to her Quaker principles, she attended her husband’s AME church and was an early member of the NAACP. It is small wonder that as a youth Rustin got involved in civil rights.
Leaders in the movement such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were frequent visitors. It took some bravery to participate in the integrationist NAACP. It went against the public separate but equal stance of Booker T. Washington. While later activists have tended to characterize Washington as an “Uncle Tom,” this is not true. He was a forceful proponent for his point of view which stressed education, public cooperation, and covert social action. Washington had the power to make life difficult for those he disagreed with. This included the NAACP.
Rustin was an excellent student, athlete and musician. He entered Wilberforce University in 1932, but left in 1936 without taking his final exams. After a stint at Cheney State, he took the American Friends Service Committee activist training program and moved to Harlem in 1937. He also took courses at City College of New York. He earned tuition money by doing odd jobs and singing with the folk singer Josh White’s group. One of the interesting things about Rustin is that he had a lot of education but never received an earned degree.
His activism continued and he became involved in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys. During this period he also joined the Young Communist League and eventually the party. After the German invasion of Russia in 1941, the party line changed from pushing civil rights to getting the US involved in the war. This was too much for Rustin and he left.
His next career development was to affiliate with the anti-communist left. He met Norman Thomas and became a lifelong social democrat; he met A. Philip Randolph, who became an important mentor, and A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and became a pacifist. These men had a great influence on his life. From Muste he learned that lobbying and writing letters was not enough, action must be taken.
Randolph, Muste, and Rustin planned a march on Washington to protest discrimination in the military. It was cancelled when in June, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 which prohibited employment discrimination by all those who held government contracts. While the order had no enforcement powers it, was an important first symbolic step which carried its own authority.
When Japanese citizens were interned, Rustin was active in trying to protect their property. This led Muste to appoint him as secretary for student and general affairs in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1942, from within this pacifist organization, Rustin and Bernice Fisher facilitated Chicago students like George Houser, James Farmer, and Anna Murray in forming CORE. This organization played an important role in projecting non-violent civil rights actions. The NAACP did not approve of the non- violent tactics adopted by CORE.
True to his pacifist principles, members of the Fellowship and CORE did not register for the draft. Rustin and others were arrested. From 1944 to 1946, he was confined to the Lewisburg Federal Prison. This did not stop his activism. In prison he organized protests against segregated dining halls and he organized the Fellowship’s Free India Committee. Once released, he was frequently arrested for protesting against the British Empire. In 1948, he went to India to learn more about non-violence techniques from the leaders of Gandhi’s movement. In the late forties and early fifties, he was active forming committees for the independence of African countries. And in the late 1940s, he played a major role in Truman’s decision to end military segregation.
While he was still the student secretary for the Fellowship, he recorded an album of Elizabethan songs and spirituals. He was an excellent musician and singer and made recordings throughout his life.
In 1946, the Supreme Court banned discrimination in interstate travel. Enforcement was slow. In 1947, he and Houser organized the Journey of Reconciliation to test the ruling. They were arrested and Rustin served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating the state’s segregation laws.
In 1985, he described this experience: “We had chains on us when we left the prison and went out to work on the roads. We were chained to one another while we used picks and shovels. It was a very harrowing and ugly experience. People were hanged on the bars by their wrists, their feet dangling above the ground. People were put into a hole—just a hole in the ground—for two or three days if they misbehaved. No toilet, nothing. On one occasion when the guards insisted that I entertain them by dancing, I refused. They took out pistols and shot at the ground around my feet, trying to make me dance.”
In 1953, he was arrested in California on a charge related to his homosexuality and served 60 days in the Pasadena jail. He lost his position with the Fellowship but rather quickly became the executive secretary of the War Resisters League. His activist activities didn’t slow down, but the organizations he worked with often chose not to publicize the association. He was just too good an organizer to be dispensed with. Rustin made no secret of his homosexuality but he did not project this part of himself as essential to his organizing activities. He was not identified, at his request, as a member of the task force that prepared the influential Quaker pamphlet “Speak Truth to Power.”
In 1956, he took leave from the League to advise Martin Luther King on non-violent tactics during the Montgomery bus boycott. When the pacifist Rustin first met King, he slept with a pistol under his pillow and had armed guards. He who introduced him to pacifism and non-violent tactics. In 1957, he and King started to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Given his political and sexual past, other black leaders, especially Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, forced him to resign.
While he did not have to resign from his role in organizing King’s 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, Randolph got the up-front publicity. In putting the march together, Rustin was known for paying meticulous attention to every detail and for seeming to be everywhere at once. He was the engine that made it go.
Rustin’s political position continued to evolve during his career. With the passage of the 1963 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act he advocated cooperation between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party. To him, when you were involved in protest there was no compromise but when you chose to engage in politics compromise was necessary. He abandoned pacifism and supported the Vietnam War and did not turn against it until he thought the democrats were sacrificing progress on civil rights to pursue the war. He did not approve of the black power movement. In a famous column he said, “You can’t get a job as an accountant with a degree in black studies.”
As time went on, some of the cloud over Rustin lifted. In the early 1970s, he was on the Notre Dame University board of trustees. I wonder how long it will take social work to catch up and offer him proper recognition as a master organizer worthy of honor and study. Until the end of his life, he was active in social justice and human rights causes. In his later years, he began to openly advocate for gay rights. This column would be several pages longer if all his groundbreaking civil rights activities and writings were listed. His academic contributions are substantial. He never held doctrinaire positions but took account of present facts and after much thought decided what his stand would be. Bayard Rustin was a master organizer whose tactics can be profitably studied today. Above all, what shines through is his common sense. It is a trait sorely needed today.
Most of the information in this column was gathered from Wikipedia and other sources.