Happy Pride Month: Retrospective Justice for Bayard Rustin!
In honor of Pride Month, the BlackQuaker Project reflects on the treatment of fearless Quaker leader, writer, singer, social critic, and human rights activist Bayard Rustin. As an out gay man in the mid-20th century, Rustin endured marginalization and hostility from all corners of USA society. This sadly included some Quakers and fellow pacifists when Bayard was arrested and imprisoned for having sex in a car with two white men in 1953. Below, BQP Director Dr. Harold D. Weaver discusses, in an interview with BQP Video and Research Assistant Cooper Vaughn, the removal of Rustin’s name from the landmark AFSC pamphlet Speak Truth to Power and the later restoration of his name to the pamphlet in 2012, an action which Hal himself initiated as a member of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Board.
“We must remember that during this period in the early 1950’s, when the AFSC made the decision to remove Bayard Rustin’s name from the pamphlet, that there were really several forces at play, nationally and internationally. First, this pamphlet was intended to address the competition of the Cold War by taking steps to reconcile with the Soviet Union in an era of political censorship heightened by McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Second was the ongoing domestic phenomenon of racism. A third force at play was the negative receptivity of homosexuality. I believe the most important reason some Quakers were unable to accept Bayard’s activities was because he got caught by police in a car in Pasadena, California, having sex with two young white men, and was jailed. This is what disturbed Quakers and pacifists the most and resulted in his firing from the trail-blazing, pacifist-social action organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), by its respected pacifist leader, A.J. Muste.
“There has been some question about who initiated the action to have his name taken off the pamphlet. At first, it was claimed that it was Bayard himself, but, in fact, it was an AFSC staff member who initiated that his name be removed, a request Bayard initially resisted. Rustin felt his name should remain as a co-author because, after all, he had made a major contribution to the document. However, in the end, Bayard agreed that the removal of his name was necessary for the pamphlet not to have an immediately controversial, negative reception.
“How did it happen that his name was restored to the pamphlet? We were in a meeting of the International Programs Executive Committee (IPEC) of the AFSC when a staff member made me aware of a paper that had been written by the director of the Peace Collection at Swarthmore College, Wendy Chmielewski, indicating that it was the AFSC that had initiated the action to have Bayard’s name taken off.
“This disturbed me immediately, and within a matter of days, I made a decision to take this up with the Board. I stressed that his name should not have been taken off and that his name should be restored immediately. Fortunately, both the Clerk of the Board, Arlene Kelly, and a number of Board members were actively supportive, having previously raised concerns about the removal of his name from the pamphlet. So, instead of the usual Quaker process of a committee’s exploring whether we should do it, the Clerk immediately responded positively, “Let’s do it!” Within Quaker practice, this was one of the fastest responses to controversy that I have ever experienced. In such a short time, there was an immediate unanimity among those approached on the Board. Months later, a resolution was passed restoring his name to the important AFSC pamphlet, Speak Truth to Power. It remains one of several acts that I am most proud of having initiated as a member of Quaker governance,” Weaver added.
The historical discrimination that Bayard Rustin and countless other LGBTQ+ individuals faced must be addressed with retrospective justice. Defined in the 2006 Brown University report, Slavery and Justice, as “administering justice years, decades, or centuries after historical injustices are committed against a marginalized party,” retrospective justice is exemplified in the recent efforts to restore Rustin’s name to its rightful place in world history. Early steps in this process include the actions of the AFSC, President Barack Obama who posthumously awarded Bayard the highest national honor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and of California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, who posthumously in February 2020 pardoned Rustin for his arrest and imprisonment. While historical wrongs cannot be undone, past offenses can be acknowledged, recounted truthfully, and amends can and should be made. Year round the BlackQuaker Project celebrates and recognizes our LGBTQ+ Friends and friends of Friends around the world. For Pride Month we are sharing this narrative in recognition of Bayard Rustin.
What can the Religious Society of Friends do to recognize our LGBTQ+ Friends who have been marginalized or discriminated against in years past? How can we support them in the present? Please write to as email@example.com with your suggestions and questions.
To learn more about retrospective justice, please see Harold D. Weaver Jr., Race, Systemic Violence, and Retrospective Justice: An African American Quaker Scholar-Activist Challenges Conventional Narratives (Wallingford PA: Pendle Hill Press, 2020), pp. 20-30. Also see Hal Weaver’s 2021 Friends Journal article, “A Proposed Plan for Retrospective Justice." To learn more about Bayard Rustin 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), pp. 150-177.
--The BlackQuaker Project