Bayard Rustin
1912–1987

Bayard Rustin
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Democracy Now feature: Black, Gay & Pacifist

This is Bayard Rustin. The man who taught Martin Luther King about peaceful protest. But most people don’t know his name because he was gay. 

 

Rustin was born in 1914 into a family of Quakers who taught Bayard to value peace and acceptance. 

 

Bayard organized his first protest as a student, at a restaurant his football team frequented. When the team went to eat there, Rustin refused to sit in the black balcony section of the restaurant. He allowed himself to be arrested as an act of protest. He then asked both black and white members of his community to help fund his bail.

 

Continuing his activism, Rustin was a pioneer in the movement to desegregate bus travel. In 1942 he protested by remaining seated in the white section at the front of the bus. This was well before Rosa Parks and the famous 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Rustin would go on to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides.  

 

Here, you can slide the pieces of the puzzle to get the bus to the otherside in as few moves as possible.

 

When the draft for World War II came, Bayard refused to enlist as a conscientious objector. As a Quaker, it was against his religion and against his personal beliefs as a pacifist. He served nearly three years in prison. Even when in prison, Rustin organized and spoke to the warden about the poor conditions for prisoners. 

 

A few years after he was released in 1948, Bayard was able to travel to India to study Gandhian techniques of nonviolent resistance. Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year so Rustin was not actually able to meet his hero. What he learned in India would feed directly into his tactics surrounding the civil rights movement. This would become especially relevant, when he began to advise Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956. 

 

At the time, it had become apparent the King would be a leading figure in the civil rights movement. While King had interests in pacifist tactics he knew nearly nothing about how to implement them. King even had guns in his home and armed guards protecting his family. Bayard explained to King the importance of living the pacifist philosophy to be successfully viewed as a pacifist leader. It’s hard to say you’re a proponent of non-violence when surrounded by guns.

 

A few years prior to this, Bayard had been arrested when caught with another man in a car. From this point, his sexuality was publicly known and presented problems for him going forward. 

 

After years working with King, a US Senator not pleased with actions being taken and threatened to spread false rumors of an affair between King and Rustin. In order to protect Martin Luther King’s image, Rustin was forced out. Rustin continued to do activist work but having his name attached or visable would be risky for any event or organization. 

 

The famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1962 was primarily organized by Rustin. You may have heard of King’s “I have a dream” speech. Yeah, that march. Rustin did much of the organizing and even spoke at the event. But his name was not listed as a speaker and Roy Wilkins was credited with organizing the march, with Rustin listed as his deputy. Wilkins said the event was too high profile, too important to risk associating it with Rustin’s name.

 

Despite being discredited, Rustin continued to organize throughout his life. In the 1980s, he even began to actively engage with gay rights activism. He was given a bit of a nudge by his partner Walter. 

 

In 1987 Bayard died of a ruptured appendix but his influence lives on. Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist fighting for civil rights and equality for all.