February is Black History Month, a time to honor and commemorate the important events, amazing accomplishments, and inspirational people who contributed–and continue to contribute–to African American history. Last February, we published a four-part, in-depth series of articles that looked at key events and people throughout Black history, from 1619 through 1970. You can find each article here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Having covered so many of the prominent names in Black history last year (Harriet Tubman, Dred Scott, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X, to name some), we’re going to take a different approach this year. Throughout February, we’ll be posting articles about some lesser-known Black heroes, pioneers, and role models who are just as vital to Black history as their more famous peers. Our first part of this series was dedicated to the incredible story of Robert Smalls. In this edition, we’re going to look at an underappreciated yet major figure in the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin

We all know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington. We are quite familiar with Dr. King’s legendary “I have a dream” speech that he delivered in the nation’s capital. But do you know who advised Dr. King and organized the march, among many other major events during the civil rights movement? That would be Bayard Rustin.

Born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Mr. Rustin was raised by his grandparents who lived a Quaker lifestyle. From an early age, Bayard stayed true to his Quaker upbringing and maintained a nonviolent approach throughout his life, no matter how much he was tested. And he was certainly tested as the 1950s and 1960s arrived.

Bayard’s grandmother, Janifer, was an early participant in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and young Bayard was fortunate enough to meet prominent leaders of the Black community, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, when they would visit the Rustin home. Interacting with strong Black voices had a profound impact on Mr. Rustin, and their passion for equality and Black rights rubbed off on him.

His life was not without controversy, however. As a student at City College of New York in the 1930s, Bayard joined the Young Communist League (YCL), believing that the communist party was strongly committed to racial justice. He left by 1941, however, when the party shifted its views away from civil rights and toward more radical idealism. After leaving the YCL, Bayard became involved with groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), which he co-founded.

During his time with these organizations, Mr. Rustin served as a field secretary, organized marches, and hosted workshops advocating nonviolent action. Unfortunately, his nonviolent beliefs led to his imprisonment for two years during World War II for “conscientiously objecting.” In 1947, Bayard and his CORE colleagues set off on their Journey of Reconciliation as a test to the Supreme Court’s ruling that banned segregation during interstate travel; he and other participants were arrested. Unbeknownst to Mr. Rustin at the time, the Journey of Reconciliation served as an inspiration and model for the well-known Freedom Rides of 1961. After his arrest, Bayard served 22 miserable days on a chain gang in North Carolina. Upon completing his sentence, he published a report of his experiences, which led to the reform of prison chain gangs.

Seeking to further his education on the philosophy of nonviolence, Bayard traveled to India in 1948 to study Gandhi’s influence on the nonviolent movement. He later traveled to Africa on a trip sponsored by FOR, where he aided in the movements for West African independence. But controversy soon followed yet again. Despite his successes and the undeniably important work he accomplished with FOR, he was asked to resign from the group in 1953 because Bayard was gay.

It wasn’t long after his expulsion from FOR that he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, where he observed a meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which he published in a “Montgomery Diary”. He knew at that time he was witnessing the seeds of a major movement being planted. In fact, it was during the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott that Mr. Rustin became one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s key advisors, where he educated Dr. King on the Gandhi philosophy of civil disobedience, or nonviolent action as a means of protest.

Dr. King had to weigh the positives and negatives of a relationship with Bayard–on one hand, Mr. Rustin had established countless important contacts, possessed a wealth of knowledge, and was a skilled organizer; on the other hand, Bayard’s background and lifestyle were not in alignment with many civil rights leaders at that time. Ultimately, Bayard’s intelligence and organizational acumen won out, and Dr. King hired him as his special assistant. In this role, Bayard served as an editor, ghostwriter, teacher of philosophy, and nonviolent strategist.

If you’ve heard of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), that was Bayard Rustin’s creation as well–he proposed to Dr. King the idea of uniting a group of Black leaders in the South, all of whom had impressive contact lists that could be used to gather masses of people for their demonstrations. If you’ve read Dr. King’s memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, you read Bayard Rustin’s words–he drafted a significant portion of the book but refused any credit for his work.

Later in the 1950s, he was a key organizer of the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom and the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools. While these were important events, they served as a warmup for the next event he was planning–1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was named deputy director of the march and within two months had coordinated the event that would see 200,000 people arrive in the nation’s capital for a truly historic occasion that would pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1965, thanks to a grant from the AFL-CIO, Mr. Rustin founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) to create an interracial coalition that would promote racial justice and secure jobs and freedom for all Americans. He served as the Institute’s executive director from 1965 until 1972. At this point in his life and career, Mr. Rustin was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees. He also published his writings about civil rights in the collection Down the Line in 1971 and in Strategies for Freedom in 1976. He continued to emphasize the importance of economic equality within the civil rights movement until his death in 1987 at the age 75.

We hope you enjoyed this profile of Bayard Rustin, an African American civil rights hero. Stay tuned for more profiles, coming soon!
In the meantime, check out Elephango for some informative and engaging lessons related to Black History Month!