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In this week’s Piece of History:
As we approach Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, let us examine one particularly important advisor to the famous civil rights leader: Bayard Rustin, a man best known for his association with the younger minister, but whose long and prolific involvement in peace and justice movements started well before King’s political beginnings, and who continued the work long after King’s death.
Raised by his grandmother, who was a devoted Quaker and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Bayard Rustin was introduced to nonviolence as a child. Earlier in his career, Rustin joined and worked for various peace and racial justice groups, including the Youth Communist League before they shifted priorities in 1941, the Fellowship for Reconciliation (FOR) which sent Rustin to India to learn Gandhian principles in 1948, and War Resisters International and the War Resisters League (WRL), for which he served as Executive Secretary from 1953 to 1965. For a man so relatively unknown today, when one looks into the recent history of civil rights and peace movements, Bayard Rustin shows up at many of the most famous moments:
But those snapshots only offer a glimpse into the man’s extensive career, and offer little about the complex life behind these moments. The 2003 film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, the centennial celebration of his birthday in 2012, and the posthumous awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013 have all helped shed light on his remarkable life. Rustin was instrumental in not just the civil rights movement, but also in the labor rights movement, in the gay liberation movement, and in the anti-nuclear weapons movement (both domestically and internationally), among so many more diverse but interrelated activities. Much of Rustin’s involvement in the civil rights movement and other organized efforts, however, was purposely downplayed at the time and until recently for his open homosexuality.
One lesser known story about Rustin and Dr. King is worth sharing here. In 1957, when Rustin went to Montgomery, Alabama for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he happened to visit Dr. King in his home along with a few others. King had heard of Rustin: although Rustin’s sexual orientation was known and regarded somewhat suspiciously by King and other leaders, the older organizer’s reputation as a skilled strategist seemed to outweigh his perceived flaws. At King’s home, as the reporter Bill Worthy was about to sit in a chair, Rustin had to warn him that he was about to sit on a gun. In fact, since racists bombed Dr. King’s home the year before, King held several firearms in his home for self-defense. Although King had a passing familiarity with Gandhi, at this time, he was relatively ignorant of the late Indian leader’s broader philosophy of self, society, and social change. That night, Rustin and King conversed at length about Gandhian principles and the strategic and moral strength of nonviolence. Rustin explained that the inconsistent application of Gandhian teachings, even in self-defense, could only spell hypocrisy and hurt the movement. By the next morning, Bayard Rustin had convinced Dr. King to remove all guns from his home, and to fully commit himself to the practice of nonviolence -- a decision that would shape the rest of the young minister’s life.
Next week, we will celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- with a post on Wednesday instead of Thursday in order to fall on his birthday. With the troubling military actions our government has recently taken, it will be worth revisiting how King seamlessly connected the internal racial and economic violence of the United States with colonialism and war exerted internationally.