People of Resilience

“People of Resilience – Bayard Rustin,” Susan Ryder


Isaiah 2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers.

Galatians 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Bayard Rustin: “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being Black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grand-parents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”

This morning as we continue our series on what it means to be a people of resilience, we turn our attention to a lesser known hero of the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin. I first “met” Mr. Rustin in a wonderful book that New Covenant Community backed as part of a Kickstarter campaign – Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints – which features beautiful artwork and stories about some amazing real-life heroes. New Covenant is listed in the acknowledgments as one of the backers of the book – along with Akierra and Addie Fox Anvick – and I look forward to getting the Sunday School Curriculum based on the book that will be coming out later this year.

I am sorry to say that I was not familiar with Bayard Rustin or his story – but after the book arrived this past December and I had a chance to flip through it, I instantly chose him as “a person of resilience” we would consider during Black History Month. Coincidentally, he was in the news just this past week. Rustin was arrested in 1953 in Pasadena, CA on a “morals charge” for having sex in a parked car with another man, and spent two months in jail for it. On Wednesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom granted Rustin, who died in 1987, a posthumous pardon. President Barack Obama also posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was raised by his grandparents, who he believed were his parents until he was an adolescent. He believed Florence as his older sister – she was actually his birth mother – and his father was a West Indian immigrant named Archie Hopkins. Rustin attended two historically black colleges in Ohio and PA before moving to New York City in 1937 to study at City College of New York. While in New York he was briefly involved with the Young Communist League because he was drawn to their commitment to racial justice. He left the organization when the Communist Party shifted their emphasis away from civil rights activity in 1941.

His personal philosophy combined the pacifism of the Quaker religion, the non-violent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph. During the Second World War he worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-related hiring. After meeting A. J. Muste, a minister and labor organizer, he also participated in several pacifist groups, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Rustin was punished several times for his beliefs.

Here’s a piece from the Holy Troublemakers book:

“As a Quaker, Bayard did not believe in using violence, even in times of war. Instead, he used nonviolent ways to resist policies and laws he believed were wrong. He refused to register for the draft during World War II because he was a pacifist, and in 1944 he was sent to federal prison for two years. While in prison, he worked to organize other inmates to protest segregation rules that prohibited black and white prisoners standing in line or eating together. In April of 1947, not long after his release from prison, Bayard rode a bus through several southern states with 15 other men [known as the Journey of Reconciliation]. Black and white men traveling together made this trip uniquely dangerous. Their goal was to test a new law about people traveling through more than one state. The Supreme Court had just ruled that these people, called interstate passengers, did not have to obey state rules that required segregated seating. Bayard and his friends planned to make sure that bus drivers in the South were following the new law. But people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina were so angry about black and white men sitting together on buses that Bayard was arrested along with several of his travel companions. The vehicle carrying them to await trial was followed by two cars full of angry white men, and one of Bayard’s companions was assaulted. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the North Carolina court ruled that since they were not traveling interstate that exact day, they were not technically interstate passengers, even though their overall trip was interstate. Bayard was tried and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor on a chain gang. Bayard’s time in the chain gang was both difficult and motivating. The hot sun beat down on him, the guards were cruel, and the work exhausted him. But even in these difficult conditions, he noticed the songs the prisoners sang to keep their spirits up. Bayard loved music and had studied music in college. When he was released and home again in New York, Bayard wrote about his brutal treatment on the chain gang for a New York City-based newspaper. His report helped end the practice of chain gangs.”

In 1948 Rustin traveled to India to learn techniques of nonviolent civil resistance directly from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. The conference had been organized before Gandhi’s assassination earlier that year. Several years later, he traveled to Africa on a trip sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee, where he worked with West African independence movements. Despite his successful tenure with FOR, Rustin was asked to resign from the organization in 1953, after his arrest and conviction on charges related to homosexual activity. One of the many remarkable things about Bayard was that even after his arrest, he continued to live as an openly gay man – this was amazing in and of itself, but for a person of color, it was even more courageous.

Rustin met the young civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and began working with him as an organizer and strategist in 1955. He is credited with being the one who taught King about Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience. Rustin helped provide King with a deep understanding of nonviolent ideas and tactics at a time when King had only an academic familiarity with Gandhi. Rustin later recalled: “The glorious thing is that he came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself, and through reading and discussions which he had in the process of carrying on the protest.” Rustin became a key advisor to Dr, King and assisted him with the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1956.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote of Rustin for PBS, “He experienced one of the lowest points in his career in 1960, and the author of this crisis was another black leader. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, angry that Rustin and King were planning a march outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, warned King that if he did not drop Rustin, Powell would tell the press King and Rustin were gay lovers. Regardless of the fact that Powell had concocted the charge for his own malicious reasons, King, in one of his weaker moments, called off the march and put distance between himself and Rustin, who reluctantly resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [which he had been instrumental in starting, and]. For that, King ‘lost much moral credit … in the eyes of the young,’ James Baldwin wrote in Harper’s magazine.”



Fortunately for us, Rustin put the movement ahead of this vicious personal slight – which led to his becoming the key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Gates continues, “The idea for the 1963 march again came from A. Philip Randolph, who wondered if younger activists were giving short shrift to economic issues as they pushed for desegregation in the South. In 1962, he recruited Rustin, and the two began making plans, this time to commemorate the centennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. ‘Birmingham changed everything,’ John D’Emilio writes in his 2003 biography of Rustin. In May 1963, the nation gasped as Birmingham police under the notorious commissioner Bull Connor turned fire-hoses and attack dogs on children. The fallout forced the Kennedy administration to jump-start action on a civil rights bill, and suddenly, D’Emilio explains, ‘the outlook for a march on Washington shifted. King, who had not shown much interest in the earlier overtures from Rustin and Randolph, began to talk excitedly about a national mobilization, as if the idea were brand new.’”

King recognized the advantages of Rustin’s knowledge, contacts, and organizational abilities, and invited him back to work with him, serving as his advisor and special assistant, well aware that Rustin’s background would be controversial to other civil rights leaders. Rustin received numerous awards and honorary degrees throughout his life, and he continued to speak about the importance of economic equality within the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the need for social rights for gays and lesbians. Bayard Rustin died of a ruptured appendix in New York City on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75.



“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” Rustin said. “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”

How might we be inspired to be “angelic troublemakers” – how can we tuck ourselves into places so that wheels don’t turn?



Who Designed the March on Washington?

Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints