Bayard Rustin was a lifelong leader in the struggle for racial equality. Raised as a Quaker and influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Rustin was a staunch supporter of nonviolent protest as a means of ending racial discrimination in the United States.
During World War II, defense manufacturing gave the American economy the boost it needed to recover from the Great Depression, but defense companies refused to hire black employees. In 1941, Rustin worked with civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph to organize a massive march on Washington, D.C., pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take action. When Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act, Randolph and Rustin called off the march.
Although he was a conscientious objector to the war, Rustin and other activists were frustrated by the fact that African American soldiers who fought in the war returned to a country that denied them citizenship rights.
In 1947, as a leader in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Rustin helped organize the interracial bus ride called the Journey of Reconciliation. The ride tested the enforcement of the 1946 Supreme Court decision, Morgan v. Virginia, that ruled against racial segregation in interstate travel. It ended when Rustin was arrested in North Carolina. He served 22 days on a chain gang, and his published writings helped end chain-gang sentences in North Carolina.
In 1948, Rustin's activism encouraged President Harry S. Truman to sign Executive Order 9981, which integrated the military. Rustin took his nonviolent strategy south in 1955, advising the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and encouraging the young minister to form an organization linking nonviolence with a civil rights agenda. That organization became known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. King.
Despite his effectiveness as an organizer, Rustin remained a largely invisible figure. Civil rights leaders feared scandal because Rustin was gay, and these concerns pushed Rustin into the background. In 1963, Rustin was called upon to organize the August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, in a last-minute effort to derail the march, denounced Rustin on the Senate floor as a "moral pervert" because of Rustin's sexual orientation. The effort failed, and the march went on as scheduled. With more than 200,000 in attendance, it was the largest peaceful demonstration in the nation's history at the time. "What made the march [great]," Rustin recalled, "was that black people voted that day with their feet." The march garnered broad support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and provided the stage for Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
In 1964, African Americans in Mississippi founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sought to integrate the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. With the National Democratic Party and the MFDP at an impasse, Rustin attempted to broker a compromise, but was unsuccessful. Rustin continued to promote nonviolence and coalition building in a movement that had become frustrated with the slow pace of change, and so his influence began to decline.
In 1965, Rustin became the executive director of the newly formed A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), a civil rights and labor organization. He worked for the APRI until his death in 1987.
What is the significance of Rustin's comment: "They came from every state, they came in jalopies, on trains, planes, buses, anything they could get - some walked."
What was the purpose of the march and what was accomplished by it?
What were Rustin's contributions to the Civil Rights Movement? Why is he not as well known today as other key figures?