• Malachi Moore

Bayard Rustin


“When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”

I’ve noticed something of an obscureness on the history of African Americans in the post-Civil War/Reconstruction era, mainly from how it’s taught both within our public school systems and all different communities throughout the country. In regards to the development of Black activism in the US, its resource’s very limited span of events, dates and names have forced us to look for heroes within our own time, and has subsequently thrown that title on those whose unlawful murders have made them the faces of the movement--rather than those working diligently to prevent the constant occurrence from happening.

And while I both understand and agree on the cause for making this so, especially during a time of paramount media-dependency, I’m apprehensive of the ensuing psychological rhetoric--from Black people and everyone else-- in associating/celebrating Black lives that had to die in order to be celebrated in the first place. I sit back and think of all the documented pieces of Black history in the US, and all that I can recollect are the promoted names from tragic events that prompted the unacknowledged to push for real change.

The short list of Black activists and Civil Rights leaders seem to have begun and ended in the 1960s while the hashtags of murdered, faceless individuals continue to rise at an unfathomable and careless amount--so much in fact--that if I were to list a name right now, there would be no way of knowing if I were referring to December, 1918 or March of 2020.

Numerous arguments could be made as to why most Black activist’s work are done in the shadows, whether it be out of necessity, lack of a heightened platform, or any other particular incidental happenings of the past that have made it so; bottom line is that there are Black lives who need to be celebrated, not only for their actions towards equality, but also the wisdom they’ve passed on to assure a prospering future generation.

I cannot think of anyone more deserving of praise than the reclusive Civil Rights leader, Bayard Rustin. Behind the scenes of just about any and every celebrated event of the Civil Rights movement, this man’s philosophy of pacifism heavily influenced fellow leaders of the time like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Before his teachings served as a core foundation for the cause however, Rustin was but a young Quaker child--in a family of twelve--in West Chester, Pennsylvania where his family’s affiliation with the NAACP gave him access to Black intellectuals of his time.

As a child, members like W.E.B Du Bois would gather at his dining room table and discuss campaigns against Jim Crow, giving him moral discernment and high self-esteem at a very young age. Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man in the 1960s, was ready to give his life for the betterment of every member of the oppressed--no matter where his reproach was coming from.

In 1942--thirteen years before Rosa Parks’ objection to relinquish her own seat--Rustin boarded a bus in Louisville and sat in the second row.

“As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it, whereupon its mother said, 'Don't touch a nigger.' If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it's going to end up saying, 'They like it back there, I've never seen anybody protest against it.' I owe it to that child, that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that. It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn't I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

What resulted from his actions and written journals turned out to be the impetus for the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement and the ensuing Morgan v Commonwealth decision to ban racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin’s arrests continued just as his fight for equality did, including in many other countries where he protested against British colonial rule. It wasn’t until after his arrest in 1953 however--where he was jailed for sixty days on charges of “homosexual activity”--that he disappeared from the public eye almost entirely.

This greatly affected relationships with former coworkers and forced him to step down from a handful of organizations he either helped create or heavily influenced himself. It appears to me that even with all of Rustin’s great achievements and potential for greater effect, this county’s incomprehension and narrow-mindedness of the time refused this man’s right to be openly praised. Despite this unfortunate inequity within our own community, Rustin did not let this setback change his direction in the movement, continued to work with all activists and lead from the shadows for the three following decades. 

Bayard Rustin was instrumental in many of the well-documented protests of American history, advising Martin Luther King Jr. of his Gandhian teachings before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, creating the Southern Christians Leadership Council, being the organizer of the March on Washington of 1963, and coordinated the New York City School Bus Boycott--the largest civil rights demonstration of the 1960s. With such a résumé, one might assume Rustin’s name would at least get a slot on my K-8 “Black History Word Search” that sufficed for the month of February--but sadly, I’ve only known of this man for about a year now. And personally, by not knowing of his life entirely, I fail to fully comprehend the centuries of mental strain others have gone under for their fight for equality. The list of names accumulated from unlawful Black deaths of his own time was already far too immense to recall every single life taken away.

Celebrated and praised in their own right, as every Black life should be, we honor and remember Emmit Till, Addie Mae Collins, Haywood Patterson--those that Bayard Rustin fought for--by honoring and remembering his name. And it should never be confused as to why he agreed to work in the shadows and continue to fight for inclusive Black equality; not because he was a closeted gay man, but because he was proud of who he was, and simply not willing to sacrifice it. 

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