Happy Birthday, Bayard Rustin!
Courageous Quaker Leader, Writer, Singer, Social Critic,
Human Rights Movement Organizer
17 Mar 1912 - 24 Aug 1987
“Conscription for war is inconsistent with freedom of conscience, which is not merely the right to believe, but to act on the degree of truth that one receives, to follow a vocation which is God-inspired and God-directed . Today I feel that God motivates me to use my whole being to combat, by nonviolent means, the ever growing racial tension in the United States; at the same time the State directs that I shall do its will...Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the State. But when the will of God and the will of the State conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God. If I cannot continue in my present vocation, I must resist.”
(Bayard Rustin, Letter To His Draft Board, 1943)
These words were written in 1943 by Bayard Rustin in response to the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. At the time, Rustin was only an emerging activist and member of the Fifteenth Street Meeting in New York City, not yet a famed leader in the Civil Rights who organized the March on Washington. The guts to deny alternative service in the draft, thereby consigning himself to federal prison, showed a courageousness that characterized much of Rustin’s life's work. Today, the BlackQuaker Project celebrates his birthday and recognizes his legacy as a Quaker leader, social critic, writer, and singer whose work has converged with our own many times.
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was raised in a Quaker community by his grandparents (his grandmother was a respected Quaker and founding member of the NAACP). He attended public school in the area and was attracted to the open minded nature of un-programmed worship at a young age. Rustin later studied at Wilberforce University, Cheney State Teachers College, and City College of New York, though he never obtained a degree. In 1936 he joined the Young Communist League. While initially drawn to the organization’s opposition to racial discrimination, Rustin later left the league when they reversed their progressive stance on segregation within the American military.
Rustin became a masterful organizer, working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Democratic Socialist Party. He was a key member in the Civil Rights movement. He counseled Martin Luther King, Jr. on employing Gandhian principles in the Montgomery Boycott of public transportation and most famously organized the March on Washington for Jobs in Freedom in 1963. Rustin laid the foundations for this landmark event while organizing the Youth March for Integrated Schools of 1958 and 1959, from which he gained the experience and connections necessary to realize the scale of the 1963 event.
In February 1964 Rustin published the article, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of The Civil Rights Movement,” in the prominent New York Magazine, Commentary. He sought to diagnose the uncertain socio-economic conditions affecting African Americans at the turn of the 1960s and to chart a new course for the Civil Rights movement to meet the needs of the changing times. With victories in voting rights legislation in the US Congress, Rustin argued that the Civil Rights Movement needed to transition to developing programs and policies to address social, economic, and political issues, most specifically the stagnant nature of integration in the education system and dwindling economic opportunities for black families. The next undertaking was the need to oppose the convergence of racism and intensified classism in the USA caused by stagnation in economic growth. He foresaw a movement evolving from “...sit-ins and freedom rides...” to “...rent strikes. boycotts. community organization, and political action.,” all necessary to create a movement capable of wielding political power in order to create equity.
As an openly gay man, Rustin endured much discrimination throughout his life. An infamous arrest for being caught in sex with two white men in 1953 resulted in a Morals Charge in California that, along with his communist associations, forced Rustin to relegate himself to a behind the scenes role within the Civil Rights Movement. He was posthumously pardoned by California’s Governor in February 2020, in recognition of the immorality of his imprisonment. This charge, along with the general racism, homophobia, and McCarthy-era oppression of the period, resulted in Bayard's name being removed from the influential pamphlet, Speak Truth to Power, (a phrase often misattributed to him) published by the American Friends Service Committee in 1955. In 2012 Harold D. Weaver, as an AFSC Board member, initiated the action to restore his name to the pamphlet. The BlackQuaker Project continues to advocate for Bayard Rustin, and remembers his courage in the face of overwhelming persecution.
To learn more about Bayard Rustin and to read his selected works, please see Harold D. Weaver, Jr., “Bayard Rustin (1912 -1987),” in Weaver, Kriese, and Angell, eds., Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2011), 150-177.
Please respond with your thoughts, feelings, and questions regarding Bayard Rustin and his legacy at firstname.lastname@example.org.