#3 Bayard Rustin: Angelic Troublemaker

It was Christmas time, 1917.  Bayard Rustin went to a community Christmas party.  He loved the music, food, and people!  While there, he saw the town drunk serving himself generously at the table.  He asked his mother Julia why the man was there when nobody liked him. She admonished him lovingly and asked, “Do you know how much courage it took him to come today knowing how everyone feels about him?”  She then reminded him that everyone needed to be treated with dignity and respect. This was only one of the many times that he benefited from the Quaker wisdom of the woman known first as his mother and later at eleven learned was his grandmother.  She was his rock; he returned to her over and over, seeking support and advice.

Yesterday, during M4W at Friends Community School prior to the students’ MLK Jr. March, a query was projected on a screen in the multi-purpose room.  It read, ” MLK used non-violence to work for peace and equality. How can you use non-violence to make this a great generation?” Did the 240 students gathered there know how MLK Jr. came to use non-violence as a strategy in the Montgomery bus boycott?  Did they know that right after his home was bombed when he was chosen head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, he had filed an application for a gun permit? Did they know that armed guards protected his home? I was concerned that they, like so many other Americans, did not know the role of Bayard Rustin in opening MLK Jr’s mind and heart to non-violent direct action as a strategy, but more importantly as a way of life. I was humbled to learn that during Meeting Partners prior to M4W they had talked about just that thing! As Black History Month begins in another week, they will learn even more about this African American, gay Quaker and how he served as a “model to all nations.”

Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, PA. His birth parents were very young and not ready to start a family, so his grandparents, Julia Davis Rustin and Janifer Rustin decided to raise him as the youngest of a large household of children. They had a large house in an Italian neighborhood, were active in the black community, and always ready to put one more plate on the table or find a bed for any who needed food or a place to stay. Julia Davis had grown up in the Quaker home of Congressman Thomas Butler and attended  and joined Quaker meeting with the family and her mother. She learned to hold each person with dignity and respect and adhered to the Quaker peace testimony and passed these on to her grandson. Thomas Butler ensured that she was educated in Quaker schools and arranged for her to attend an integrated nursing school. Janifer was a steward at the Elks Lodge and often catered for wealthy West Chester families, bringing home tasty, elegant food to his large family. He was a member and leader of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. His whole family joined him there, singing in the choirs, attending and teaching Bible school, and taking part in the social outreach of the church. Bayard’s religious training was rich and solidified his pacifism and love for all humanity from an early age. Though he cherished the silence of Quaker meeting for worship, he also loved the rich musical heritage of the AME community.

Julia also helped him take pride in who he was. When the teacher tried to correct Bayard’s left-handedness in grade school, Julia stood firm and told the teacher that he was left-handed and would remain so. From his sixth grade teacher, Helena Robinson, he learned about the history, accomplishments, and heroes of black culture.  She took her students to homes in West Chester where free blacks and Quakers had supported runaway slaves with stations on the Underground Railroad. She also talked with her students about the lynchings that were occuring in the South, the reasons given, and the ways people were working to end them. She taught them to be proud of who they were and to expand their horizons. His music and choir teacher, Floyd Hart, introduced him to classical music and foreign languages.

Bayard’s best friend was an Italian boy, John Cessna.  John was always welcome at the Rustin household; Bayard was not invited by John’s aunt to come to their home.  The boys met often at the library, open to everyone. When they were younger, the boys went to segregated schools, but in high school everyone went to the same  school.  Bayard was popular and excelled in academics, music, debate, and sports. Once, unfortunately, he was with a bunch of boys who harassed the local Chinese laundryman, calling him names and throwing rocks at his business. The laundryman knew Julia Rustin well and let her know what had happened.  Julia was disappointed and let Bayard know. For two weeks he spent three hours each afternoon after school helping at the laundry for no pay. “Hate is tiresome,” she told him. Bayard would remember always Julia’s disappointment and appreciate her approval. Years later, when he returned home with his gay friends, his family welcomed them and recognized them for who they were.

Outside of the high school, Bayard learned what racial discrimination was all about.  He could not eat with his friends downtown, sit in the same seats at the movie theater, nor play at the YMCA together. Twice Bayard stood up against these prohibitions. While at an away track meet, he was told he could not stay with the other athletes at the hotel. He organized the team and they told the coach that the team would not run if Bayard could not be with them overnight. Since he was important to the team’s success, he stayed in the hotel. His friend John demonstrated at the YMCA over Bayard’s exclusion and went straight to the director.  That time the boys were not successful.  Another time, Bayard sat in a whites only seat at the West Chester movie theater and was arrested for the first time.

Bayard’s organizing and protesting continued at Wilberforce College in Ohio, where his musical talent had won him a scholarship. There he discovered blues and work songs from Southern musical students. With them, he sought to include this music in performances and protested when they were not.  He refused to attend mandatory ROTC training, and he organized a protest of the college’s bad food. He also realized he was gay. After a year, he returned home to Cheyney State, continued to organize and protest injustices, served on an American Friends Service Committee peace brigade to Auburn, NY but left short of graduation for New York City.

In New York, he discovered the richness of the Harlem first opened to him in the teaching of Maria Brock at Gay ES in West Chester. He sang with Paul Robeson in “John Henry,” a short-lived black musical, and then with Josh While and the Carolinians. Bayard joined the 15th St. Quaker Meeting. He took classes at New York City College, joined the Young Communist League, and discovered his skills in organizing. When the YCL dropped its push for racial equality and supported WWII in 1941, Bayard left the party and joined forces with A. Philip Randolph, a strong labor and civil rights activist. They planned a March on Washington to protest the exclusion of blacks from jobs in the defense industry. President Roosevelt was so disturbed by the thought of thousands of blacks protesting in DC but helped by the encouragement of his wife Eleanor to act humanely, he issued an executive order to open the jobs to African Americans. A seed had been planted in Bayard’s garden of change agency.

It would blossom under the teaching of A.J. Muste, who introduced Bayard to the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1942, Bayard took a seat in the white section of a bus going to Nashville, TN. I little white boy reached out to play with his red necktie.  The mother responded loudly and used the N-word. The bus driver came back and asked Bayard to move to the back of the bus.  He refused. He had an epiphany; he must get arrested so the boy would see the injustice of segregated seating.  At the next stop, he was arrested and brutally beaten.  His non-violent response and calm but passionate discussion with the Asst District Attorney Ben West led to his release, “You are free to go, Mr. Rustin.” Another first for Bayard in his southern travels.

Two other stories in the early days of Bayard’s travelling and speaking against racial prejudice and equality for all come to mind. Having been asked to speak in an Ohio church, he arrived and sat in a back pew.  Not being acquainted with him, the hosts and congregation waited for the speaker to come. One of the ministers suggested the group ask the “Negro janitor in the back” if he had seen the guest speaker.  Bayard stood, introduced himself, walked to the front, and spoke passionately to those gathered about peace and racial prejudice.The minister said he would never be the same again.  The second story tells about a train trip to the West when German prisoners of war were being transported to a camp. One of the women on the train complained that the Germans were being given preferential treatment when they were allowed to eat first but separately from the other passengers. She slapped a young prisoner on her way down the aisle. She insulted the young man and refused to apologize. Bayard asked to speak to the German soldier but was refused permission.  He asked the guard if he might sing to show sympathy for him. In his beautiful tenor voice he sang, ” A Stranger in a Distant Land,” a gesture for which he received the young soldier’s thanks.

Much happened to Bayard Rustin in the next 15 years.  He spent three years in Ashland, Ky and Lewisburg, PA prisons for refusing to serve in WWII even after receiving his conscientious objector status. During those stays he used non-violent direct action to protest segregated facilities and activities. The prison officials were only too  glad to see him released “for good behavior.” Back at work, he organized with other staff members the “Journey of Reconciliation” to confirm integrated interstate transportation, he travelled to India to talk with politicians and learn more about direct action, and he served 30 days on a NC chain gang. After that experience, he wrote an article for the NY Post that helped lead NC legislators to ban chain gangs in their state. And, he was arrested on a morals charge in Los Angeles

After a return to NY, months of therapy, and behind the scenes work for the War Resisters League in support of the bus boycott, he was asked to go to Montgomery to convince the boycott leadership to use non-violent direct action. Hesitant he would be seen as a Northern interloper and concerned about the possible negative use of his YCL membership and morals charge arrest, he was persuaded by Muste and Randolph that he was needed.  When he arrived, King’s house had been bombed, armed guards were stationed outside King’s house, the leader had applied for a gun permit, and there were arrest warrants for 125 bus boycotters.  Bayard acted quickly.  He suggested that the bus boycotters put on their Sunday best, gather at one place, and walk together to the police station to turn themselves in. It was a strategy with positive results. Bayard began to share the meaning and use of non-violent direct action with MLK Jr. and the life and teachings of Gandhi.  He explained the Gandhi Way – negotiate to change thethen laws, agitate and educate, demonstrate, demand change, and then use non-violent direct action. Most of all, he spoke passionately about non-violence as a way of life.

Two last things about Bayard Rustin will stay with me always: his organization of the 1963 March on Washington and his gay partner relationship with Walter Naegle.  The March on Washington in 1963 would not have happened without him.  For me, the great disappointment was my departure with my husband Harold for service with the AFSC to Tanzania just three weeks before the August 28, 1963 event. As a Quaker, the most miraculous part of the event was his persuasion of the NY Police Department to allow 100 of its police officers to participate as march marshalls as civilians without uniforms or weapons! Bayard Rustin’s relationship with Walter Naegle came in the last ten years of his life. They loved and supported each other, worked and travelled together, and prepared for Walter’s future and Bayard Rustin’s  legacy. To ensure Walter’s future, Bayard officially adopted him, going through all the visits and paperwork with love and good humor.

He was a true angelic troublemaker, saying “no” to violence, hatred, prejudice, injustice, and refusal to help the poor and marginalized while saying “yes” to love for all humanity, non-violence, cooperation, freedom, and equality. 

Books to read:

  • Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long  Gr. 4-8
  • We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin by Larry D. Brimner  Gr. 3-6
  • Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D. Emilio  Gr. 9-12
  • Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen by Jervis Anderson Gr. 9-12
  • Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement by James Haskins  Gr. 4-8
  • “Interracial Primer: How You Can Help Relieve Tension Between Negroes and Whites” by Bayard Rustin, a 1941 pamphlet published by the NY FOR office, available online as a pdf

Questions to consider:

1.  What were the childhood influences in Bayard Rustin’s life?  How do they express themselves in specific incidents?

2.  How did Bayard Rustin use his musical talents to further his goals?

3.  What two or three aspects of his Quakerism shaped his life in the world?

4.  Give your own interpretation of “angelic troublemaker.”

5.  Quakers aspire to “let their lives speak” and “be models to all nations.”  What do these mean to you?

One thought on “#3 Bayard Rustin: Angelic Troublemaker

  1. This would be amazing for Black History Month. The Washington Blade and the Washington/Baltimore Afro American, the Informer etc. may be interested. May I send a link to them? Thanks so much, June, for your scholarship.

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