civil rights movement

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When the civil rights movement is mentioned in a discussion, nearly everybody in the audience thinks about Martin Luther King Jr. and his commitment to the movement. Many young Americans equate the Reverend from Montgomery with the efforts and commitment made in the pursuit of freedom and justice for American minorities. He has been portrayed as a saint and has also been likened to Jesus and Moses. Coretta Scot King, Dr. King’s wife, once characterized him as “an instrument of divine plan and reason” (Bermanzohn 37). The name Bayard Rustin, on the other hand, will elicit puzzled looks from the same people because it is new to many. It can be argued that once people are educated more on the life of Bayard Rustin, many can realize that Bayard was at least as great of a man and contributor to the civil rights movement.

Bayard Rustin was one of the most influential organizers and also key members of the civil rights movement. A gay man and once a member of the communist party, Rustin went on to play a significant role in fighting for the rights of African Americans and later on the gay community in the United States. Mostly working behind the scenes, he was able to mold the movement into a symbol of non-violent resistance in the United States and even the world over. He was also an influential figure who sculpted Martin Luther King Jr, who previously had bodyguards for his family and also carried a personal hand gun, to a fundamental understanding of non-violence (Kates and Singer). Throughout his career in the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin had to act as a silent force influencing the non-violent actions because he was constantly ostracized for being open about his sexual preferences. Even in the modern American society that has become more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and queer community, Bayard Rustin’s contributions are still not discussed and given the recognition he deserves. According to Kates and Singer, Bayard Rustin had ventured into human rights activism and for “more than a decade before Martin Luther King Jr became the preeminent symbol of non-violence Bayard Rustin was leading his brilliant oratorical, intellectual, and organizational power to the struggle for peace and justice.”

Born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester Pennsylvania Rustin was raised by his maternal grandmother together with uncles and unties who he thought were his brothers and sisters. Rustin’s mother gave birth at the tender age of 16, and his father was not present in his life. Due to the mother’s young age, Rustin grew up thinking that she was his sister. His mother later got married to a Jamaican man, but Rustin remained under the care of his grandparents. He was raised in a family that followed the Quaker traditions which has a rich history of resistance and non-violence. According to Jervis Anderson (196), he took Quaker values which in his words “were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.” His grandmother was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which gave Rustin the chance to meet leaders of the organizations such as W.E.B Dubois and James Weldon Johnson who were frequent visitors at their home (Spartacus Educational Publishers). These events were a great influence on him and can be said to have contributed to his interest in campaigns against the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws during his teenage years and the civil rights as well as LGBT rights later on in life.

It is in high school, where he excelled in academia as well as sports, where Rustin first protested against racial segregation by refusing to sit on a balcony that was reserved for blacks only in the local movie theater. He also organized fellow athletes in his high school to protest segregated accommodation when they were in out of town trips. As a young man, Rustin attended Cheyney State Teachers College but later dropped out and went to live with his aunt in Harlem where the Young Communist League (YCL) was active in fighting against the Jim Crow laws (Robinson 1132). His fiery personality and strong speaking skills saw him easily ascend to a leadership position where he played an influential role in organizing protests and movements calling for desegregation. Quaker values such as absolute pacifism and a strong belief in equal rights for all which Rustin learnt from the NAACP later proved very instrumental in the struggle and according to Steinberg “these two political strains- pacifism and racial activism were to become the leitmotif of Rustin’s life” however, his involvement with the YCL came to an abrupt end after the Nazis invaded the soviet union in 1941. The extremely violent nature of the campaign prompted Rustin to quit the activities of the YCL due to his strong beliefs in pacifism.

Rustin’s actual involvement with the civil rights movement only began in 1955 after the incidence where Rosa parks declined to relinquish her seat for a white man (Steinberg 73). This was the incidence that really sparked widespread calls for desegregation as before then the civil rights movement was not constructed at all. Due to his experience in organizing protests, Bayard Rustin was requested to head to Montgomery where he was actively involved in molding and shaping the civil rights movement into the movement that is taught in classrooms and known the world over for creating an inspirational leader out of Martin Luther King Jr.

Bayard Rustin’s intellectual contributions to the civil rights movement can be seen in the roles he played as an organizer, a strategist and as one of the first advocates for the use of non-violent tactics in the movement. He had great skill in conceiving and planning protest demonstrations as well as a great perspective analysis of movement trends which earned him respect from all quarters in the civil rights movement. He also played a critical behind the scenes role as an advisor to both Martin Luther King Jr and A. Philip Randolph through which he was able to greatly influence the course of the civil rights struggle after the Second World War. He was the pioneer of non-violent direct action tactics during his time as the race relations secretary for the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) where he served together with James Farmer. He also helped make the Congress o f Racial Equality stronger and also participated in their journey of reconciliation which landed him in a chain gang in North Carolina for twenty-two days.

Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr paths crossed in 1956. In the December o f 1955, black Americans in Montgomery, Alabama under the leadership of Dr. King protested the Jim Crow seating laws by mounting their own boycott of the city buses. Although a brilliant leader, Martin Luther King Jr was only twenty-six then and did not have much experience in organizing protest demonstrations. Due to his extensive involvement in various organizations, Rustin was sent to Montgomery where he met Dr king. He was however dismayed to find guns in Martin Luther kings house as well as the discovery that Dr. King also carried a hand gun for his own protection. Bayard Rustin came up with a new strategy for Dr. king, asking him to put away the guns and accept to be arrested in the spirit of anti violence and in line with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Rustin also proposed Martin Luther King reach out to other churches in the south in a bid to broaden the base of support for the boycott. He also increased Dr. king’s coalition by bringing on board other groups organized by his long term ally Randolph and various other pacifists from New York. Funding for the campaign was sourced from their friends and allies in the labor movements, politicians of good will, celebrities in the movie and music industry, and wealthy liberals who were willing to donate their money. With the help of Rustin, Dr. King found himself now the leader of a fledgling national civil rights coalition which continued to grow up until 1963 when they organized the historic march on Washington for jobs and freedom.

Works cited

ANDERSON, J. Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen. Berkeley ; Los Angeles ; London: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Bayard Rustin : Biography. (n.d.). Spartacus Educational. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USArustin.htm#mainbody

Bermanzohn, S. A.Violence, Nonviolence, And The Civil Rights Movement.New Political Science, 22.1 (2000), 31-48.

Kates, N. (Director). Brother outsider [Documentary]. USA: California Newsreel, 2002. Print.

Robinson, J. A. Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin by Nancy Kates; Bennett Singer Review. The Journal of American History, 90.3, (2003) 1132-1133.

Steinberg, S. (n.d.). Bayard Rustin and the Rise and Decline of the Black Protest Movement. William Paterson University. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from nova.wpunj.edu/newpolitics/issue23/steinb23.htm

Bayard Rustin was a man of many talents which included being a strategist, an organizer, a speaker and a writer. For more than three decades, he marshaled all these talents to fight for not only the equality but also the economic status quo in America. As mentioned, he was a key aid and a mentor of a young Dr king who found himself with the enormous responsibility of leading the civil rights movement. He was a brilliant thinker and strategist, talents that led the A. Phillip Randolph to hire him as the leader of the youth wing, a position through which he played an influential role in organizing the march. Under the guidance of A. J. Muste, Rustin had been gained extensive experience in organizing protests due to his involvement with various organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, as well as the War Resisters League. Through these organizations, Rustin was able to gain a home base a title and also network with other activists around the country. He was always traveling around the country preaching the gospel of non-violence and civil disobedience in learning institutions, churches and during meetings with fellow pacifists. He grew the next generation of civil rights and anti war activists as he always ensured to recruit a handful of students in these meeting he held.

John D’Emilio, writes that Rustin was “the perfect mentor for King at this stage in the young minister’s career.” He further states that in the months and years to follow “Rustin left a profound mark on the evolution of King’s role as the national leader.” (D’Emilio 13) He advised Dr king who did not have experience in organizing, on the philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience. However, a s gay man and a former communist, Rustin had to give his advice from a distance through memos, phone calls, and writing drafts of articles to Dr king. Along with Stanley Levinson and Ella Baker, who were also advisors of Dr. King, Rustin came up with the idea of creating a mass movement across the south which would be composed of “disciplined groups prepared to act as non-violent shock troop.” (D’emilio 321). It is from this idea that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King as its first president came to be. Baker and Stanley were given the responsibility of building the organization while Rustin would be Dr king’s chief strategist, ghostwriter, and the link between the organization and liberal and unions in the north.

Another intellectual contribution of Bayard Rustin was the 1963 march on Washington. An elder leader of the civil rights movement A. Phillip Randolph was able to bring together all leaders of the various civil rights organizations, labor, as well as liberal religious organizations on board in a plan to stage a march on Washington. Among the goals of this march was to push for federal legislation targeting civil rights. The event would also emphasize jobs for black Americans hence the inclusion of labor organizations in which Randolph had served for decades. Randolph was chosen the director and then appointed Bayard Rustin as his deputy due to his wealth of experience in organizing marches. Rustin and his team came up with a plan, the now famous organizing manual No.2 that would be used to guide the marchers. In 12 pages, Rustin had outlined the practical such as the number of toilets and the foods that would stand up better for the long march, as well as the political such as the right podium size for the dozens of competing organizations. He grilled and drilled the scores of police officers and fire marshals that had volunteered for the march on non-violent ways of crowd control. The organizing manual also had a ‘what we demand’ section in which they outlined the ten goals of the march. By the end of it all, Rustin had managed to organize arguably the most successful non-violent march which was attended by more than 200, 000 individuals.

Despite all his contributions to the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin never got the recognition he deserved as he is scarcely mentioned. Homophobic distracters like Strom Thurmond were determined to use his sexual orientation to discredit the civil rights movement often stating that he was a “communist, draft dodger and homosexual.” This was due to his association with the Young Communist League during his youth, a conscientious objector status, and having been arrested for a homosexual incident which had also been used to remove him from a leadership position at the Fellowship of Reconciliation (Steinberg 54). Other than engaging in homosexual behavior and refusing to join the draft, Rustin was also accused of doing many other illegal things in his life (Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd). However, due to his brilliance, Dr. Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph knew that he was the right person for the job. Operating behind the scenes, he remained one of the most influential and successful characters of the civil rights movement.

The legacy of Bayard Rustin has been profoundly underappreciated as it was often hidden to protect the civil rights movement from attacks by its distracters. It can be argued that Rustin contributed more than anyone else in the adoption of Gandhian principles in the civil rights movement. He played a critical role in the formation and activities of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was a key advisor to Dr king, and a key strategist and organizer of the 1963 march on Washington. However, he remains a key character and influential to the success of the civil rights movement due to his intellectual contributions.

Works cited

Bayard Rustin : Biography. (n.d.). Spartacus Educational. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USArustin.htm#mainbody

D’Emilio, J. Remembering Bayard Rustin. OAH Magazine of History, 20.2, (2006) 12-14.

D’emilio, John. Lost Prophet. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Steinberg, S. (n.d.). Bayard Rustin and the Rise and Decline of the Black Protest Movement. William Paterson University. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from nova.wpunj.edu/newpolitics/issue23/steinb23.htm

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