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Where is Bayard Rustin?

The Forgotten Great Strategic Civil Rights Organizer

Do you know who Bayard Rustin is? Have you ever heard of him? Bayard Rustin, one of the country’s most influential, and most overlooked, civil rights strategists. He was a Quaker, African American, and gay. Fifty-seven years ago Bayard Rustin, a tactical genius whose plans culminated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin’s legacy lives not in the past, but in the present and future of United States of America. His work linking sexual, racial, and economic rights was not only forward-thinking in 1963, but also now.

Now many of you are wondering who is this man I speak of? Why am I correlating Rosa Park’s ‘Freedom Rides’ to Bayard Rustin? I believe that is important to understand how the multiple freedom rides and bus sit in prior led to Rosa Parks historic moment and that is where Bayard Rustin comes in. Prior to Ms. Parks there had been many ‘freedom rides’. The Freedom Riders were inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, led by civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and George Houser. Rustin and Houser organized the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. This was the first of the Freedom Rides to test the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel (Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia). Rustin and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) executive secretary George Houser recruited a team of fourteen men, divided equally by race, to ride in pairs through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

The NAACP ( National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) opposed CORE’s Gandhian (It is a body of ideas and principles that describes the inspiration, vision and the life work of Mahatma Gandhi. It is particularly associated with his contributions to the idea of nonviolent resistance, sometimes also called civil resistance) tactics as too meek. Participants in the Journey of Reconciliation were arrested several times. Arrested with Jewish activist Igal Roodenko, Rustin served twenty-two days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation.

In one of his own “Rosa Parks moments” he was quoted saying: I cannot move.” The police came, and they started dragging Bayard out of his seat. And he pointed to a little white child across the aisle saying, “If I move, this child will not know that injustice is taking place here.”

Bayard Rustin is one of 20th century America’s boldest social activists, most masterful strategists of peaceful protest, and brilliant organizers. Thanks to Rustin, civil disobedience became a powerful catalyst for political change in this country. In my opinion, without Rustin as his steadfast mentor, adviser and confidant, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have understood the impact of direct action, which defined his civil rights leadership. He is the man who organized one of the greatest and most significant marches of American History. That’s right he organized the March on Washington in 1963, an event attended by more than 200,000 people. Besides that huge accomplishment Bayard was always a forefront is making sure justice & liberties where served to all.

While Bayard Rustin had been peacefully trying to change the social injustice of America since the early 1940’s, his open homosexuality caused many close to him to hide their work and friendships from the public. Although King’s speech ultimately left the most indelible mark on America’s memory of the event, it was a photo of the march’s two organizers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, that was chosen as the photographic icon of the historic event (Life Magazine). Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King and others fearing his (Bayard Rustin) sexuality would discredit the event, appointed Randolph as the director, and Randolph appointed Rustin deputy organizer. Bayard Rustin historian, John D’Emilio, author of Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, explained that Rustin only had eight weeks to organize the March. Talk about time management skills. The following eight weeks, writes D’Emilio, “were the busiest in Rustin’s life. He had to build an organization out of nothing. He had to assemble a staff and shape them into a team able to perform under intense pressure. He had to craft a coalition that would hang together despite organizational competition, personal animosities and often antagonistic politics. He had to maneuver through the mine field of an opposition that ranged from liberals who were counseling moderation to segregationists out to sabotage the event. And he had to do all of this while staying enough out of the public eye so that the liabilities he carried would not undermine his work.” While Bayard was ever the big dreamer, he also had the ability to reach out and see the bigger picture. He once explained: “What you have to understand is that the march will succeed if it gets 100,000 people – or 150,000 or 200,000 or more – to show up in Washington. It will be the biggest rally in history. It will show the Black community united as never before – united also with whites from labor and the churches, from all over the country.” 250,000 people would ultimately be there.

Now many history books overlooked Bayard Rustin compared with other more well-known civil rights leaders, due in part because of societal views regarding him being an out homosexual man at the time, but there’s been renewed recognition of his overall contributions in recent years. Looking back at his career, Mr. Rustin, a Quaker, once wrote: ‘The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.’ March 17, 2012 marked the 100th birthday of Bayard Rustin. While King’s birthday is now a national holiday, Rustin by and large languishes in historical limbo.

Bayard Rustin in 1964 wrote an essay entitled “From Protest to Politics,” arguing that the civil rights movement needed to change from a “protest movement” to a “political movement.” He would want to see political change. Rustin, would urge today that if he was still alive that once the demonstration are done, more action is required. It is the Civil Rights Movement in which there should be movement with the organization and the outside political forces. The economic justice work of the civil rights movement — great schools for all kids, good jobs, a fair shot in life for everyone — remains largely uncompleted. Bayard Rustin thought that political action rather than mass protest was the only way to move this work forward. In Ferguson, MO he would urge for continued peaceful protest, but also encourage the community to register people to vote. Encourage them that if they want to see the change that, they need to be the change.

Americans should know about and remember Bayard Rustin. His name should be synonymous with organization, strategic planning and Human Rights Activism especially in the Civil Rights movement. Though Rustin, life was riddle with controversy due to his uncompromising attitude, his hometown had the grit and forethought to honor him a decade ago. The Republican-dominated school board in West Chester, PA -- a conservative district that is 89% white -- voted to name its new high school after Rustin in 2002. At Bayard Rustin High School, where a huge photo of him adorns one wall, teachers incorporate aspects of his life into their classes. Dr. Phyllis Simmons, the principal, insists, "Our students know who Bayard Rustin is."

"We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don't turn.” –Bayard Rustin.

When I look back at the history books or think about what I learned in elementary, high school, and college, I’m compelled to ask, “Where is Bayard Rustin?”

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