Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin, organiser of the March on Washington in 1963, was a Quaker who schooled his monthly meeting in pacifism and prison warders in non violent resistance and direct action. He might accept tactically delaying racial integration in order to reduce resistance to it; he would not accept delay caused by white people’s hurt feelings. In prison, he addressed the Warden as an equal.

In 1942, he was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee, for refusing to sit in the back of a bus.

He was the assistant to Martin Luther King who may have brought King to non-violent resistance and direct action; he had to resign as assistant when he was accused of an affair with King. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. concocted the story fearing civil rights marches would embarrass the Democratic party. Rustin supported gay rights all his life: “no group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment.”

He recognised how injustice is interconnected, and supported poor whites. King eventually followed Rustin’s argument, for example in the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Rustin led the A. Philip Randolph Institute, forming alliances with the white labor movement. He was a singer who released albums and entertained fellow prisoners by the prison pipe system.

He was brought up by his grandmother Julia, a Quaker, and joined Brooklyn MM when he moved there. The Meeting was considering providing US soldiers with hospitality services. Rustin argued that soldiers’ morale was important to make them effective in war, and as “war is wrong”, “It is then our duty to make war impossible, first in us and then in society”. Yet it would not be fair to men committed to taking part in the war to admit them to meeting for worship, where pacifist messages might cause them anxiety. Co-operating with the military might make it more difficult for Quaker conscientious objectors to avoid conscription.

Rustin was a youth worker for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which worked on nonviolent direct action for peace and human rights. He observed, “The suffering which the Negro has already endured fits him well for the disciplines necessary for nonviolent direct action. . . . The use of violence by a minority group is suicidal.” In a few months he travelled in twenty states and spoke before more than 5000 people, including in seventeen colleges, and counselled many men and boys considering conscientious objection.

He was a Communist who left the party when war broke out and the party told him to focus on defeating fascism rather than the liberation struggle of African Americans.

Jesus was his exemplar in nonviolent direct action. Jesus practiced civil disobedience (He deliberately violated the Sabbath laws), noncooperation (He refused to answer ‘quisling’ Herod when questioned by him), mass marches (Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem with a large procession of his followers shouting revolutionary statements), and even personal nonviolent direct action (He drove by drastic action the exploiters from the temple).

Rustin refused to go to a camp for COs, as COs there had restricted contact with the outside world, and so went to prison. “But when the will of God and the will of the state conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God.” He said he would attempt escape from a minimum security prison, so had to be sent to a higher security prison. The warden begged his superiors to send Rustin somewhere else. He immediately sought to work with the warden for the racial integration of the prison.

I have had difficulty, sometimes, remaining in the Light in a Quaker committee. How much more in the violence of prison? Rustin wrote, “Though joyfully following the will of God, I regret that I must break the law of the state. I am prepared for whatever may follow.”

I have been taught a great lesson since coming here—namely, that there is such suffering in this world that not one penny should be misplaced or one moment wasted by men of social concern. I shall see many fewer shows and drink many fewer beers when I am free. And this not merely for discipline of self, but because these pleasures pale into the distance as one is brought face to face with the suffering . . . in lives here. I say this to indicate that we, all of us, must be very careful to search ourselves and our enterprises to make certain that we are using our resources wisely.

When the warden allowed him to mix with white prisoners, a man attacked him with a mop handle, with force sufficient to break the handle and Rustin’s wrist. Rustin did not resist, and insisted that the attacker be not punished, perhaps heaping burning coals on his head.

I certainly am convinced that there is need of a spiritual revolution if we are to avoid complete moral degeneration. I am equally certain that some totally dedicated and spiritually radical group, giving itself constantly and wholly to a life of the spirit, will (by its virtues) usher in the forces that will make genuine change possible. Whether I am to be of that group I doubt.

My own wish to be part of that revolution blanches before this modesty.

When one works to relieve racial tension (an area in which progress is slow, in which a life’s work can be destroyed by one hasty or unfortunate incident, in which the principle of ends and means must be observed faithfully) one must develop along with patience and a real consideration for the conditioning and point of view of others an easy sense of humor. Be able to laugh! Be able to laugh at yourself first. Only then will you have perspective, that middle ground “between tears and laughter” in which you will be forced to work for many years yet.

He would not force a white man to integrate. “It is, indeed, the most basic tenet of my belief: to force is to destroy.” But, giving white objectors the option of moving to another wing meant that they were not forced. The Warden should also consider the Black men: “There are 19 men in lower E who may appear to be content but who constantly are warped and embittered and made to look upon themselves as inferiors (as you yourself have noted) by the system of separation. The line of segregation, as every enlightened social worker, doctor, or teacher knows, touches every aspect of these 19 black lives.” Rustin thought the warden might be delaying, and wrote, “May I hear from you today.”

Instead the warders found prisoners who told of Rustin propositioning them sexually, or said they had seen him engage in oral sex, and had him placed in administrative segregation. Rustin resisted being sent there; but later wrote, “As a personal discipline I intend to … concentrate wholly on my own share of guilt; to refuse to discuss the administration’s share.”

From “I must resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters,” ed. Michael G. Long.

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