Bayard Rustin and the Hidden Story of Civil Rights

Bayard RustinBayard Rustin. (Photo: Library of Congress)

As children, most of us learned a very simple narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. America was segregated, so a million people marched on Washington and asked for integration. Thanks to a persuasive dream of Dr. King, Americans changed the laws and stopped being racist. The end. Packaged up with a ribbon on it, the story is part of the national ethos.

But the real story was not so tidy. In reality, the Civil Rights Movement spanned decades. It encompassed a number of organizations and thousands of supporters, many of whom could not agree on the right way forward. Integration and political rights were but one part of a broader agenda that focused on economic reform, human rights, and anti-imperialism. In this truer portrait, a man named Bayard Rustin was in the foreground.

Rustin was born in Pennsylvania in 1912 and raised by his Quaker grandparents. He spent some time in college, but received a deeper education by traveling through Harlem during the Great Depression. It was here that he began to cultivate a taste for social justice, making a name for himself as an eloquent speaker with a sharp mind. He joined the Communist Party in 1938 because of its unapologetic advocacy for racial equality. In 1941, he worked with A. Philip Randolph to organize a march on Washington, which aimed to expose the hypocrisy of fighting a war for freedom while African Americans had limited rights at home. The threat of this public protest forced President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in the national defense industry, and Randolph canceled the march. Yet for Rustin, this was not enough. Disillusioned that FDR did not integrate the armed forces, Rustin became an outspoken pacifist and earned a three year prison sentence as a result.

After the war, Rustin studied, perfected, and practiced a new form of protest that had been working in India: nonviolence. He mentored a number of young protestors in the process. His most famous student was a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Together, they brought the Civil Rights Movement to the forefront of American minds, braving death threats to work for justice. And after twenty years of dangerous work, Rustin finally got his march. He placed his pupil’s speech at the end of the program, confident that the passionate oration about a dream of future equality would be the day’s pinnacle.

While Rustin was one of the key architects of the Movement, his complexities meant that he did not fit the popular simple narrative. Rustin was a gay man who had ties to the Communist Party, and his colleagues – Dr. King included – often kept their distance from him. Rustin also faced criticism from radical voices within the Movement, many of whom advocated the use of self-defense and a stronger stance on issues like Vietnam and Palestine. Although in his youth Rustin was far ahead of his time, the youngest activists were moving away from what they perceived as Rustin’s gradualist approach of working within the system.

Despite debates within the activist community, Rustin continued to promote a broad campaign of equality for more than two decades after his famous march. He criticized imperialism and American support of despotic regimes. He called for greater economic opportunity for poor people, and argued that poverty in America was the lasting failure of the Movement. Speaking around the world, he framed Civil Rights as a global, human rights issue. Rustin supported gender equality, labor unions, and socialized medicine. He was one of the first major advocates for gay rights.

Rustin should be central to the traditional Civil Rights narrative. He fought for equality for forty years, yet is barely remembered. He mentored one of history’s most recognizable leaders, yet faced division and exclusion. He was one of his time’s most progressive thinkers, but struggled to balance his values with political pragmatism. His triumphs and struggles encapsulate much of what the Movement should mean to us today. Ultimately, his legacy is a reminder that Civil Rights extended beyond the most famous speeches and marches, and well beyond a narrow agenda of integration. It is a reminder that Civil Rights was not a short, simple story that ended many years ago. For Rustin, Civil Rights represented a revolution of societal values. So long as systemic inequalities persist based on race, class, gender, and sexuality, Rustin’s revolution is not over.

About the Author

Michael McLean

Michael McLean is a Ph.D. student at Boston College. He grapples with the violence in American history through the lens of Native American and enslaved communities. In his free time, he studies the Lakota language and leads outdoor backpacking and rock climbing trips.

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