Bayard Rustin

Jervis Anderson has written a thorough and sympathetic biography of a charismatic and complex man in BAYARD RUSTIN: TROUBLES I’VE SEEN. Bayard Rustin was raised by a grandmother who was a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and who instilled in him principles of pacifism which were to guide most of his life. After a brief flirtation with communism in the late 1930’s, Rustin came under the influence of A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the only major black union in the United States. After helping Randolph prepare a march on Washington, D.C., the threat of which convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ban racial discrimination in defense industries, Rustin worked for many years as an organizer for the Christian pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).

During World War II Rustin was a conscientious objector to military service and served over two years in federal prison for draft resistance. In 1947 he led a group of sixteen white and black men on the first “Freedom Ride,” seeking to enforce desegregation of interstate buses in the South. He left the FOR in 1953 after an incident in California in which he pleaded guilty to charges of homosexual activity; he then went to work for the non-sectarian War Resisters League.

In 1956 Rustin was called to Montgomery, Alabama, where a bus boycott by black citizens was being led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin served as an adviser to King then and for many years after, especially in the strategy of non-violent resistance. His association with King reached its most important moment when Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington at which King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

With the diffusion of the civil rights movement after King’s murder in 1968, Rustin lost his influence. He died of cardiac arrest in New York City on August 24, 1987.