In this profile, we shift gears to examine the life of someone who was an outsider to mainstream America during the mid-20th Century, but who nevertheless found a way to make a major impact as an activist and organizer. Bayard Rustin was born to an African-American family of Quakers in Pennsylvania who were heavily involved in the NAACP. After being kicked out of college, Rustin pursued a singing career in New York City during the 1930s. While living in the Big Apple, he became involved with the Young Communist League. Rustin liked the group's promotion of equal rights for Black people, but he disapproved of its cultish devotion to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, which led him to resign. During the 1940s, he was hired as a writer & organizer by a pacifist organization, and he studied Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance tactics in India. In the years that followed, Rustin ran afoul of the law 3 times: for failing to register for the draft, for participating in a civil rights sit-in, & for engaging in a gay relationship. During the late 50s & early 60s, Rustin met Martin Luther King Jr. and convinced him to embrace a totally nonviolent approach (King had been carrying a gun for protection up to that point). Rustin successfully organized the famous March on Washington in 1963, despite becoming a lightning rod for right-wing criticism when people learned that he was gay ex-Communist. In the late 60s & early 70s, Rustin also drew criticism from some on the Left due to his opposition to the non-nonviolent militancy of the Black Power movement. Bayard Rustin then advocated for LGBT rights in his home state of New York prior to his death in 1987.Support the show
“From Boomers to Millennials” is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at our history since the end of the Second World War. Welcome to Episode 17C, also known as “Bayard Rustin: 10 Minute Profile.” Each of our 10-minute profiles start out with the question: what makes this person interesting & significant? In our first 10-minute profile episode, we examined the career of Henry Cabot Lodge Junior, a Massachusetts Republican politician & diplomat. Both of Lodge’s grandfathers had been United States Senators. He went to all the right schools, & he always had an inside track to the halls of power. So, for our second 10-minute profile, we thought it would be fun to pivot our focus from a total insider to someone who was a total outsider to the conventions of mid-20th Century America. So, we’re going to discuss the life of Bayard Rustin, who was a gay African-American ex-Communist in Cold War America, the kind of person who would be ignored, if not condemned, by mainstream society. Nevertheless, Rustin ended up having a profound influence upon the Civil Rights Movement and helped to change the course of Modern US History.
Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania during the year 1912. He was raised by his grandparents, who brought him up in the Quaker religious tradition, and he went on to live by its pacifist creed. His grandmother was also deeply involved with the early civil rights activism of the NAACP, and prominent black leaders, including the famous sociologist & public intellectual WEB DuBois, sometimes visited the Rustin home in order to attend meetings being held there. Bayard was a gifted young man, and he headed off to college at Wilberforce University, a historically black university in Ohio named for William Wilberforce, the British statesman who had advocated for abolishing the slave trade. However, young Bayard also had a strong tendency to challenge authority, & before he was able to graduate, he was kicked out school for organizing a student strike protesting the poor quality of the food on campus.
Rustin was a talented singer, and upon leaving school he traveled the country in a gospel harmony group. During the 1930s, he settled in New York City, where he obtained minor roles in a couple of Broadway musicals. He had reached adulthood during the Great Depression, which was a high-water mark for interest in Communism within the USA. It appeared that capitalism had failed as an economic system, and many people believed some form of socialism or communism would be a better way forward. Rustin took courses at the City College of New York, and during this time he became involved in the Young Communist League, a leftist group that strongly supported equal rights for Black Americans. He later resigned from the group after it became more militantly Stalinist, but if you’ve been a regular listener of this podcast, you can probably guess that Rustin’s brief communist affiliation became a major liability for him during the Red Scare environment of the early Cold War era.
After distancing himself from Communism, Rustin remained a passionate advocate of radical political reforms. During the 1940s, he was hired as a “secretary of race relations” by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was an antiwar group that had been founded by liberal Protestant clergy and that now had pacifistic & socialistic leanings. In this new civil rights organizer role, Rustin was able to meet & work with the powerful African-American labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, who was trying to pressure President Franklin Roosevelt to improve civil rights. Rustin & Randolph planned a massive march in Washington DC against segregation in the military & the defense industry. President Roosevelt, who was worried about maintaining national unity during wartime, agreed to issue an Executive Order banning discrimination in defense industry jobs if Randolph agreed to cancel the march. Randolph accepted this deal, which was one of the first political victories of the mid-20th Century civil rights movement. Also in the Forties, Rustin became one of the founders of CORE (or the Congress Of Racial Equality), the influential civil rights group we first mentioned back in Episode 16. This organization fervently opposed the Jim Crow system of legal segregation that was ubiquitous in the American South (and it also opposed the customary, more informal segregation common in the North). CORE did not think that an armed uprising by Black people in the US was the solution to this problem, however; it promoted the nonviolent activism utilized by Mohandas Gandhi in India, which mirrored the pacifist teachings of Rustin’s own Quaker background. In fact, Rustin was so committed to pacifism that he refused to follow the law requiring him to register for the draft during the Second World War. As a result, he went to jail for 2 years, from 1944 to 1946. It wouldn’t be the last time he would have a run-in with the American criminal justice system.
After his release, Rustin went to North Carolina with CORE & took part in an early sit-in against segregated public services in 1947, years before the civil rights movement hit its stride. Rustin’s small protest was broken up by the local authorities, and he was sentenced to one month’s labor on a chain gang. In 1948, Rustin traveled to newly-independent India, where he talked to & learned from activists who had been involved in Gandhi’s successful nonviolent resistance movement. He became ever more convinced these methods could work in the US. However, Rustin ran into legal trouble once more during the early 1950s. Bayard Rustin was a gay man, and although it was very difficult to be open about this orientation during the Forties & Fifties, he didn’t do nearly as much to hide his identity as did most LGBT people of his era. In 1953, he was arrested in California & sentenced to 60 days in jail for charges related to legally-prohibited homosexual conduct. After this incident, he was asked to resign from multiple civil rights organizations he was affiliated with. Remember, in addition to the Red Scare, the early 1950s was also the zenith of the Lavender Scare (see Episode 4), a gay ex-Communist such as Rustin found himself marginalized on multiple levels at this time.
Nevertheless, Rustin remained undeterred in his political activism. In the late 1950s, he was inspired by Reverend Martin Luther King Junior’s involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (see Episode 11). He travelled to Alabama to meet King, who was quickly impressed by Rustin’s ideas. In fact, King was not yet committed to total nonviolence at the time, & he sometimes carried a concealed weapon for self-protection. Rustin taught King the underlying principles of Gandhi’s resistance philosophy that he had studied firsthand in India. As a result, he managed to convince MLK to wholeheartedly embrace this nonviolent approach & to give up his gun. His influence on Martin Luther King may be Rustin’s most profound historical legacy. Rustin continued his civil rights work during the early 60s. He & A. Phillip Randolph organized the famed 1963 March on Washington, which culminated in MLK’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. However, during the lead-up to the event, Rustin drew attention from newspapers, & the enemies of racial equality did some digging into his background. We first met Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina way back in Episode 3, when he ran for president as a 3rd party pro-segregation candidate in 1948. During August 1963, with the March on Washington just weeks away, Senator Thurmond stepped onto the Congress floor & denounced Rustin, essentially labelling him as a “draft-dodging Commie pervert.” As a result of this criticism of Rustin, some event organizers tried to push him into the background & out of the public eye. Nevertheless, he had already played an essential role in organizing one of the most important & successful mass civil rights marches in American history.
The final chapter of Rustin’s career is more controversial among progressive activists who admire his early radical activism. During the late 1960s, Rustin became an outspoken critic of the Black Power movement & opposed the civil rights movement’s shift away from strict adherence to nonviolent tactics. He came to be a fervent defender of the State of Israel, a supporter of anti-Communist US foreign policy, & a sometime opponent of Affirmative Action during his final decades in public life. During the 1970s and 1980s, he became a regular contributor to neoconservative Commentary magazine. Some former admirers charged him with being a “sell-out,” but another possible explanation is that, like many people, he just became a bit more conservative later on in life. However, he never became a total reactionary. He remained a lifelong supporter of the labor movement & he opposed the conservative economic policies that were coming into fashion during the late 1970s & early 1980s. He also got involved in the campaign for LGBT rights; during the Eighties, he lived openly with his partner, artist Walter Naegle, & Rustin also testified in the New York State Legislature in favor of a Gay Rights Bill. Bayard Rustin remained a passionate & controversial political activist clear up until his death in 1987 at the age of 75. We hope you have enjoyed this profile of an often-overlooked yet highly influential political thinker & organizer from the civil rights era. You can provide feedback on this episode at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see cool historical photos related to our episodes, please follow our Instagram. Our account name there is simply “boomerstomillennials.” Thanks in advance for the follow, and as always, thank you for listening.