I’m so glad for this news. It somewhat makes up for the various discussions and remembrances at the time of the observance last August of the 50th anniversary of March on Washington that mentioned Rustin’s role only a little (as if minor) or not at all. As someone who has studied Rustin and admires him, despite some of what happened later in his life, I was distressed, or shall I even admit “angry”, about these “slights”. It is well known that at that time he often stayed in the background
because of his homosexuality and the fear that accusations about that would impede
the work on civil rights.
Here I just want to point out a few things in his life that put it into perspective regarding the history of 20th century campaigns for civil rights. (I have spent too much time studying Rustin’s very complex life to be able to write about him briefly.)
Some remarks follow these 6 points and a fairly complete timeline is at the end. There’s also a partial bibliography.
Rustin was an activist from high school days in Chester, PA.
1. In 1936 he became a Quaker, declared himself a pacifist and in 1944 refused
to be drafted or do alternative service and spent 3 years in jail for it.
2. In 1941, with A. Philip Randolph as his mentor, together they planned
a March on Washington against racial discrimination in war-related
industries and told President Roosevelt they would carry out the march if he
did not establish Fair Employment. They also wanted the armed forces to be
integrated. Roosevelt responded with Fair Employment but not integration.
The march was cancelled. (This is 22 years before the march we remember.)
3. In 1942 he, with others, were beaten for sitting in the front of an interstate
bus in the south. (14 years later, Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus in
4. In 1948 Randolph and Rustin threaten President Truman with a March
on Washington if the armed forces are not desegregated. Truman orders
5. In 1963 various civil rights leaders meet to start planning a March on
Washington for Jobs and Justice. Rustin becomes the lead organizer.
After the passage of the Civil Rights act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965
Rustin changed course and believed in working with the government to achieve his
goals rather than protesting in the streets. This change alienated his fellow activists
and there was never again the kind of common goal with common efforts to achieve
them that there had been.
Editors note: Bayard Rustin was the subject of a program at Princeton Public Library that was cosponsored by Not in Our Town.