In Honor of Two Great Men: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin

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Bayard Rustin with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956 (Credit: Associated Press)

In January at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This year of the 30th Anniversary of his death, we remember Bayard Rustin, a great friend of Rev. King.

The philosophies, teachings and examples of both men, ahead of their time during their lifetime, are the instructions America should follow now in pursuit of its greatness.

Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987) was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, pacifism and nonviolence, and gay rights. He was born and raised in Pennsylvania where his family was involved in civil rights work. In 1936, he moved to Harlem, New York City and earned a living as a nightclub and stage singer, and continued activism for civil rights.

A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 “March on Washington”, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American Civil Rights Movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.

Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. Five years in the making and the winner of numerous awards, BROTHER OUTSIDER presents a feature-length documentary portrait, focusing on Rustin’s activism for peace, racial equality, economic justice and human rights.

Today, the United States is still struggling with many of the issues Bayard Rustin sought to change during his long, illustrious career. His focus on civil and economic rights and his belief in peace, human rights and the dignity of all people remain as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and 60s.

Of note: In February 1956, when Bayard Rustin arrived in Montgomery to assist with the nascent bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. had not personally embraced nonviolence. In fact, there were guns inside King’s house and armed guards posted at his doors. Rustin persuaded boycott leaders to adopt complete nonviolence, teaching them Gandhian nonviolent direct protest.

Apart from his career as an activist, Rustin the man was also fun-loving, mischievous, artistic, gifted with a fine singing voice, and known as an art collector who sometimes found museum-quality pieces in New York City trash. Historian John D’Emilio calls Rustin the “Lost Prophet” of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bayard Rustin said …

Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality.

 

My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being Black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me.

I believe in social dislocation and creative trouble.

I am an opponent of war and of war preparations, and an opponent of universal military training and conscription; but entirely apart from that issue, I hold that segregation in any part of the body politic is an act of slavery and an act of war.

I am a Quaker. And as everyone knows, Quakers, for 300 years, have, on conscientious ground, been against participating in war. I was sentenced to three years in federal prison because I could not religiously and conscientiously accept killing my fellow man.

I have seen periods of progress followed by reaction. I have seen the hopes and aspirations of Negroes rise during World War II, only to be smashed during the Eisenhower years. I am seeing the victories of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations destroyed by Richard Nixon.