Bayard Rustin, the namesake of this blog, was a passionate very active African American civil rights leader who’s works came to fruition in the mid of the 20th century. His contributions to America were phenomenal but today they’ve gone unsung simply because he was gay. This tribute, on what would have been his 100th birthday, will share some of his greatest works . It will also show a spiritual connection that I believe had a great influence on his life, that is very rarely, if almost never or ever, spoke on by anyone . There are many different kinds of libertarians which I spoke of in my first blog here at Bayards S.O.U.L , a few months back. Those considered “civil libertarians” believe that government has no right to pass laws that restrict, oppress, or selectively fail to protect people in their day-to-day lives, and those who are true civil libertarians will fight against any government laws established that do it. This is what Bayard Rustin dedicated his entire life to doing and was very succesful, yet so very few still don’t know him. When you read his story you’ll see why I call him in this tribute “The Worlds Greatest African American American UNSUNG Civil Libertarian.
I also have included a video that will briefly comment on one of those epic contributions.
Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Penn to Florence Rustin who was unmarried and very young at the time, so young Bayard was raised to believe his mother was his sister. Both Bayard and his mother lived with her parents, Janifer and Julie. They raised the children up in the A.M.E. church which they attended there in West Chester. This church (The African Methodist Episcopal Church), was the VERY FIRST “official” African American bible believing church in the history of the United States. The church was founded by the Reverend Richard Allen who sensed a compelling drive to change lives in his community and he believed he could do it through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ which he did, not just in his community but around the world. After he was freed form slavery he developed an underground rail road for fugitive slaves and despite consistent prejudice and resistance, he launched a flourishing ministry which ultimately reached thousands around the country in his time and thousands more in generations that were yet to come. His commitment to ministry was seen ferverently continued on by those who were still following his teachings just before Bayard was born. In 1906 the A.M.E. church became even more affluent in West Chester as its leaders spoke out against injustice regarding the very famous lynching of George White. The convictions of the believers in this church which Rev Allen started, was infectious and transfered to Bayard’s grandparents and more in particular his grandmother Julia, who Bayard said had the most powerful influence on his life. Julia, although she was raised as Quaker before marrying her husband, was very much involved in this ministry. Bayard would often see his grandmother, a true activist, take her commitment to upholding the gospel a way beyond the church walls there in West Chester. She’d attend NAACP meetings and often times they’d have many famous leaders at their home such as the famous William Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. So having such a powerful spiritual base so connected, so bold and unafraid to speak out, stand up and stand out against injustice as the leaders of his church had who went before him had done, one can clearly see how ALL THE THINGS Bayard grew up witnessing as a child, could so easily inspire this young man to become the strong effective civil rights leader that he became.
As Bayard grew, becoming established in the faith his church sought so diligently to instill in its followers, he was able to find his call and purpose to public service very early in his life. He, like Julia, also moved in fulfillment of that call outside the church walls. We see this as he attended Wilberforce University in Ohio (another entity of the A.M.E. denomination which he was raised), where he first found himself working with the Religious Society of Friends and F.O.R. (Fellowship of Reconciliation). He also worked with the American Friends Service Committee. As pacifists, when he and other friends from college were called to a military draft, one of his very first activist events was his refusal to go into military and as a result of that refusal they found themselves imprisoned for 2 years. After coming out he joined the War Resisters League. After that, Bayard found himself forming many protest. He formed a protest against the British rule going on in India and Africa. He then concentrated his efforts on working with those defending the Scootsboro boys who were believed to be falsely accused of rape. He later formed a protest with Norman Thoma , A. Phillip Randolph and A.J. Muste against the racial discrimination going on in the armed forces. From then he went on to California to fight for Japanesse Americans who had been imprisoned in internment camps. On a bus trip from Louisville to Nashville Bayard staged a protest sitting on a seat designated for whites only. After that, he was once again arrested. He then moved on to work with George Houser, James Farmer and Bernice Fisher in forming C.O.R.E. (The Congress of Racial Equality) . He also worked with Houser to form what was called Journey of Reconciliation, in which they staged the country’s very first freedom rides,. On one of those rides, he and 14 in his group were arrested. The spirit in which Bayard pursued his public call was undeniably a double portion of the spirit Reverend Allan worked in and through his work he was able to see far more justice for his people than those leaders who established the A.M.E. church could have ever even imagined.
Up to this point in Bayard’s life, his arrests were strongly supported by the groups he fought for and with, but in 1953 when it was found that he had been involved in a sexual relationship with two white men from one of his organizations, once again he found himself arrested, but this time the rallying for community support he had given for others, was not there. That was not yet a cause during this era that people organized largely to fight for, which Bayard clearly recognized and when he was released from jail he simply went back to fight for the things he believed demanded more attention for those times. Not long after this, Bayard was moved to a new level and took took a great interest in civil rights leader, Mahonda Ghandi and so much so that he traveled to India where he was, to learn from his followers all about non violent civil resistance. When he got back in 1956 he met Dr. Martin Luther King, another man very much involved in the fight for civil rights, then working in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and upon meeting him shared with him and his followers the many things he learned in India, which set Dr. Kings mission on the non-violent path. Soon after Bayard and Martin began to form what is now called the S.C.L.C. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
In 1963 Bayard was asked by Dr. King to assist in planning the 1963 March on Washington which was to be one of the biggest protest the country had ever seen. Bayard agreed and while he became one of its chief organizers pulling together everything from all of its speakers, to rallying all of its police support, cots for thousands to sleep on, lunches and he did it all while facing much resistance. Seeing that the arrest for his earlier sexual activity with men had become a matter of public record, those who were unaccepting of his being gay, used it to work against him. One of the most vocal men who used this to very publicly undermine his efforts, was the minister, Adam Clayton Powell. Senator Strom Thornton was another who even went as far as to work to produce pictures of Bayard in a bathroom with Dr King while he was bathing, to suggest that they too had a sexual relationship. While there were a number of others who publicly stood against him, the march still went over very very successfully, landing Bayard a picture on the cover of Life magazine as one of the civil rights movements chief leaders. The controversies and scandals however were becoming a big distraction away from the movements main purposes and Bayard ultimately stepped away from the movement publicly working in much quieter settings.
He went on from there to politics, advocating that the Democrat Party work more closely with the civil rights movement and then he worked to encourage blacks to work more with white unions and churches to help strengthen their causes. He wrote many public articles , gave speeches around the country and talked with many notable public leaders. Earlier he even recorded several spirituals. In the 70’s he changed his direction somewhat and began working with those in the gay community and in 1986 he spoke out publicly in favor of New Yorks Gay Rights Bill .At the late age of 65 after many years Bayard finally found the love of his life. He found that love in a person much younger then him, Mr Walter Naegle who lived with him and shared that love with him from then on in throughout his final days. It was from there in New York where they lived that Bayard worked along in developing what was called A. Phillip Randolph Institute in Washington D.C. an national institute that although is very different today then when it started, is still very much alive. In 1987 he went to Hatti on behalf of an organization he worked with called Freedom House and while there felt unwell from what was diagnosed as a “perforated appendix “. This ultimately led him to make his earthly exit and on August 24th, Bayard went on to be with the Lord.
Today Walter, who now heads the Bayard Rustin Fund, works with many around the country to share and preserve Bayard’s epic contributions to society. While Bayard was such a powerful influence we believe his work goes unsung by the masses today simply because he was an openly gay man, but my my my , what an example of faith he employed in the face of so much rejection. So so many times he faced harrassment , which for many would have been unbearable. In one instance when a group of hecklers intensely stood in a concentrated effort to intimidate him he spoke back and said “I am fortified by truth, justice, and Christ.” “There’s no need for me to fear.” This is the kind of strong faith in Jesus Christ that Bayard exemplified throughout his entire life which the Reverend Richard Allen sought to instill in the followers of the A.M.E. church. The same conviction of this church’s very spiritual teachings can be heard in Bayard’s many speech’s, in the music he recorded and the activism he displayed in different places throughout the world. Its also seen echoed throughout the thousands of African American congregations that continue in the church’s ministry today. Its May 17th 2012 and if Bayard would be still physically walking with us on this earth today, this would be his 100th birthday and since those of us of the faith believes he still lives on, we sing to him “Happy 100th”