A “Complex and Multi-Talented Man”: Exploring the Fascinating and Complicated Legacy of Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin speaking at Solidarity Day, September 19, 1981, https://digital.lib.umd.edu/resultsnew/id/umd:687295

As Pride month comes to a close, the Meany Labor Archive wanted to highlight the life and legacy of one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s close advisors and mentors, gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. In one of our last blog posts, co-written with University Archives, we explored the radical legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, specifically his ties to the labor movement. A key figure in the Civil Rights movement, Rustin advised Martin Luther King, Jr on nonviolent protesting, and was a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. And while the March on Washington is commonly considered one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in United States history, the largest demonstration was actually a system-wide school boycott in New York City, beginning on February 3, 1964. Over 360,000 elementary and secondary students went on strike, with many of them attending “freedom schools” that opened up around the city. And who did local leaders recruit to guide the protests? None other than Bayard Rustin. As the lead organizer for the strike, Rustin immediately solicited volunteers and met with church and community leaders to obtain their commitment to organize their membership for the strike. On February 3rd, 464,361 students did not show up for school. In freezing temperatures, picket lines formed outside 300 school buildings, and over 3,000 students marched with signs reading “Jim Crow Must Go!,” “We Demand Quality Education!,” and “We Shall Overcome!” And although the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) never publicly endorsed the strike, nearly 10% of teachers were absent, and the union supported teachers who refused to cross the picket line. The day after the strike, Rustin declared that it was the “largest civil rights protest in the nation’s history.” Prior to organizing two of the largest civil rights demonstrations in United States history, Rustin also played an important role in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which challenged racial injustice through the usage of “Gandhian nonviolence.” As a member of CORE, Rustin trained and led groups in actions against segregation throughout the 1940s. 

Despite these immensely valuable contributions to the movement, Rustin was marginalized in both the movement and historical memory due to three reasons: his sexuality, pacifism and his past political leanings. Rustin joined the Young Communist League in 1936, attracted to efforts to combat the hardships of the Great Depression and white supremacist violence in the South. Though Rustin left the League in 1941 when the league refused to combat segregation in the military, he remained critical of capitalism and embraced democratic socialism. At a time when known communists were heavily surveilled, Rustin’s affiliations were often attacked by his opponents, leading to increased invisibility within the movement. When Rustin was involved in the black freedom movement, homosexuality was “roundly condemned, harshly punished, and pushed out of sight.” Among Christian pacifist groups, Rustin’s sexuality was viewed as “morally suspect.” Often, concerns came from friends and allies. For example, when Rustin was in Montgomery for the bus boycotts in 1956, he was urged to leave so his sexuality would not be attacked by enemies of the movement. A decade prior to the March on Washington, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California by Pasadena police on suspicions of “lewd vagrancy.” Rustin pleaded guilty to a “morals charge,” received a 60 day jail sentence and registered as a sex offender. This incident, his previous arrest for dodging the draft and his past association with known communists, were consistently used to attack and discredit his work during his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. For instance, in 1960 Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr threatened to claim (falsely) that Dr. King and Rustin were lovers to keep King and Rustin from boycotting the Democratic National Convention. US Senator Strom Thurmond also put the arrest record into public record right before the March on Washington by calling Rustin a “communist, draft-dodger and a homosexual.” Many of Rustin’s contemporaries believed that respectability politics made him a liability to the causes he supported and felt the need to betray him when threatened with exposure of his sexuality. Rustin was not ashamed of his sexuality, but he understood the need to put the movement above himself, choosing to work behind the scenes.

Who was Bayard Rustin? Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where a community of black freedmen existed since the Civil War, he was raised by his grandmother, who was a nurse, a Quaker, and an early NAACP member. Rustin staged his first sit-in by himself after he was refused service at a restaurant with his teammates as a high school football player. After attending the College of the City of New York and the London School of Economics, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group, where he assisted A. Philip Randolph in the first attempt at a March on Washington in 1941. Less than a year later, Rustin was beaten by police for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Tennessee. During WWII, Rustin traveled to California to protest Japanese internment, where he was jailed for over two years. A few years later in 1947, Rustin spent 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina during the original freedom ride. 

To better explore Rustin’s connection to labor and his marginality in the movement, we chose to review a folder of Bayard Rustin’s speeches from the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department records. This folder, along with over 100 other folders from the Civil Rights Department records, were digitized by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities’ African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities (AADHum) Initiative. These records will be included as part of the “Advancing Workers Rights in the American South,” project, funded by a $350,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). In collaboration with Georgia State University, the project will provide online access to records of the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Southeast Division and national-level records from the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department, as part of CLIR’s “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives” program, which is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The digitized folder is a folder labeled “Bayard Rustin Speeches, 1967-1974.” The folder is part of a series within the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department records for the A. Philip Randolph institute (APRI), which reflects the APRI’s collaboration with the Civil Rights Department and other labor organizations to promote civil rights at the local, regional, and national levels. The APRI was co-founded by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin Randolph and Rustin founded in 1965 to “continue the struggle for social, political and economic justice for all working Americans.” The series contains printed, near print, and manuscript material, including minutes, memoranda, correspondence, notes, publications, conference material, speeches, pamphlets, and clippings. The specific folder contains published speeches, pamphlets, AFL-CIO press releases and newspaper articles. Within the folder, the items were in reverse chronological order, though at points randomly jumps between years. 

Instead of reviewing the folder in its original order, this blog post will review the folder in chronological order to obtain a better understanding of Rustin’s contributions, connection to labor and his marginality in the movement. The first item in the folder we wanted to highlight is an article written by Bayard Rustin titled, “Looking forward: From Protest to Politics.” The article was originally published in the February 1965 issue of Commentary Magazine, a monthly magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee. The article found in the folder, however, was reprinted by the League for Industrial Democracy, the succeeding publication of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, founded by Upton Sinclair, Walter Lippmann, Clarence Darrow, and Jack London. In the article, Rustin emphasizes the importance of the civil rights movement to shift their strategy from a focus on survival and full access to American society to one that could address deeper systemic issues. Rustin argued that the movement achieved its immediate goals such as public accommodations desegregation and voting rights, and now it was time to turn to the difficult question of economic justice. For Rustin, this meant abandoning the protest tradition and instead creating alliances with other dispossessed groups, which he thought included Afro-Americans and other minorities, trade unions, liberals and religious groups. It also meant working with the Democratic party to ensure grassroots movements turned into meaningful socio-political change. Rustin believed that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the focus should be on functional programs with concrete objectives. In the article, Rustin interestingly cites discourse comparing and contrasting the Jewish community and the Black community, a recurring theme throughout articles and speeches found in the folder. In the article, Rustin also states that “whatever the pace of this technological revolution may be, the direction is clear: the lower rungs of the economic ladder are being lopped off. This means that an individual will no longer be able to start at the bottom and work his way up; he will have to start in the middle or on top, and hold on tight.” One of the key points of Rustin’s article is that in 1965, he believed the Civil Rights movement was “evolving from a protest movement to a full-fledged social movement–an evolution calling its very name into question.” 

Around the time of writing this article, Rustin and A. Philip Randolph had been working to create the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI). They recognized that the goals of the two movements were the same: political, social freedom and economic justice. A month before the article was published, Rustin was in Philadelphia, speaking to approximately 500 public school teachers, where he read a letter from Dr. King to John Ryan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Speaking at the rally, Rustin urged Black teachers to “vote 100% for the union,” as they fought for bargaining rights against the non-union Philadelphia Teachers Association. Two weeks later, Rustin spoke at a luncheon for the National Trade Union Council for Human Rights, a division of the Jewish Labor Committee. The council called for “united action” between the Civil Rights and labor movements to make the War on Poverty “meaningful.” Additionally, Rustin argued that, because the Black community lacked the economic and political power to solve their issues, they “must make common cause with labor.” Rustin also became more involved in Democratic politics and was accused of being a “traitor” for cautioning delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to back down when President Johnson made a deal to seat the state’s conservative wing. His continued support of the Democratic party, and his opposition to “identity politics” angered many individuals from the black power movement, and he again found himself to be an outsider. Yet, Rustin also remained critical of the War on Poverty. At the AFL-CIO Advisory Committee on Civil Rights meeting in Atlanta at the end of February, Rustin echoed the common cause argument, stating that the Black community sought inclusion in the “total society.” Rustin stayed consistent in organizing around the War on Poverty, telling the crowd at the 4th annual Full Citizenship and World Affairs Conference of the Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers in April 1965 to unite for the War on Poverty. A week later, Rustin spoke at the 60th annual conference of the League for Industrial Democracy in New York, telling the audience that poverty and unemployment “measure our distance from the Great Society.” Pointing to Alabama specifically, Rustin argued that much of the state’s industry consisted of “runaway plants” that relocated to the south for “cheap, non-union labor,” citing it as the main reason why the Civil Rights movement supported the AFL-CIO’s drive for a $2 minimum wage. 

In September of 1965, Rustin was invited to speak here on campus at the University College’s Law Enforcement Institute, held October 12th and 13th. However, Rustin refused to sign a “loyalty oath” requested by school officials, on grounds of “democratic principles.” Responding to a citizen’s complaint regarding Rustin’s appearance on campus, Governor J. Millard Tawes ordered a state police investigation into Rustin’s background. Should the University rescind the invitation, Rustin still intended to deliver his speech on a “street corner” if necessary. The invitation was upheld by president Elkins, who cited the Attorney General’s opinion that the loyalty pledge was not required for “one or two shot appearances,” such as Rustins’. Rustin was allowed to speak, but his appearance sparked a variety of reactions and backlash, as indicated by several Diamondback articles displayed here. Speaking before a near-capacity crowd at the University College’s Adult Education Center, Rustin reiterated his refusal to sign the oath, saying “it would not only be against my religious convictions, but my civil convictions, as well.” Echoing a similar rhetoric found throughout the speeches explored in this post, Rustin told the audience that while demonstrations would continue “as long as injustice exists,” civil rights issues could not be solved solely through demonstrations, adding “the major emphasis must be through voter registration.” This event and discourse localizes the complex discourse of support, backlash, and marginalization of Bayard Rustin because of his political leanings and sexuality, regardless of his invaluable contributions to the Civil Rights movement. 

Rustin’s critical yet complex stance is especially relevant today as we see the resurgence of similar ideas that emerge on both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement. His opposition to identity politics is also interesting as he is now remembered as an iconic gay figure despite showing little support for the gay rights movement until later in life. It wasn’t until the 1980s when he showed political support by bringing the AIDS crisis to the attention of the NAACP in 1987 before his passing. 

“Black Power’ and Coalition Politics,” 1966.

The second folder item we looked at is an essay by Rustin titled, “Black Power and Coalition Politics,” published in 1966. Similarly, this essay was originally published by Commentary, but the article in the folder is a reprint by the A. Philip Randolph Institute. In this piece, Rustin makes clear that he believed the Black Power movement, and Black separatist ideology lacked value and served as a hindrance for the broader civil rights coalition. “It diverts the movement from a meaningful debate over strategy and tactics,” Rustin wrote, adding that “it isolates the Negro community, and it encourages the growth of anti-Negro forces.” He believed that the Black Power movement threatened to reproduce the same conditions they rebelled against, by creating a new “Black establishment” as opposed to developing new programs. Juxtaposing his own work on the Freedom Budget with A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., with the Black Power movement’s inaction regarding economic justice, Rustin argued that the Freedom Budget strived to provide a job for everyone willing and ready to work, a guaranteed income for those who could not work, and a living wage to lift people out of poverty. In this writing, Rustin also coined the term “no-win policy” in relation to the Black Power movement’s approach to induce white liberal support for the civil rights movement by “shocking” them with examples of white liberal hypocrisy. Rustin strongly believed that the movement could not advance without substantial programs and coalition building between the labor movement and politicians, stating specifically that “coalition and integration are better alternatives.” Similar to the above document, this writing also highlights issues that are relevant to today. The freedom budget was especially visionary for its time, using language and ideas similar to those of contemporary political leaders. The Atlantic in 2017 annotated the document to show if the document’s goals have been met or missed in the half century since it was written. 

The next speech highlighted in this post is titled “Fear, Frustration, Backlash: the New Crisis in Civil Rights,” which Rustin delivered at the December, 1966 meeting of the Jewish Labor Committee’s National Executive Committee. The speech was first published in the March-April 1967 issue of Dissent magazine, and was repurposed as a pamphlet by the Jewish Labor Committee. According to chairman Charles Zimmerman, the speech was repurposed because the committee believed it had “special significance at this moment of crisis for the Civil Rights movement.” More specifically, the speech was reprinted because of its strong unifying message. Zimmerman’s introduction concludes with an endorsement of the Freedom Budget, stating that “only through such a program can freedom, dignity, and security become the shared experience of all the American people.” Pushing for the Freedom Budget, Rustin concludes his speech by telling the audience that through full employment, an increased minimum wage, guaranteed income for those unable to work, and a “new kind of public work” based on what is needed, white fear and Black frustration could both be alleviated, making the country “a more beautiful place to live in, with justice in our streets.”

“The Alienated: The Young Rebels Today and Why They’re Different,” December, 1967.

At the 1967 International Labor Press Association (ILPA) convention held from December 3rd through December 6th in Miami Beach, Florida, Rustin spoke to delegates about Black youth in America. The speech, titled “The Alienated: The Young Rebels Today and Why They’re Different,” was reprinted by the ILPA. Rustin separates the alienated youth into three groups, the Black Power and New Left, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) and U.S. Youth Council,  and the extreme right, which Rustin refers to as the “Ayn Rand clubs.” Rustin subtly attacks the Black Power and New Left movements, suggesting that they “substitute personal emotion for political action.” Rustin also responds to questions about racism and bigotry in the labor movement, arguing that cutting himself off from institutions with existing prejudice would render him in a room alone with himself. Rustin further argues that the corporate capital and labor are the two greatest powers in the United States, and labor “cannot hold its own in a reactionary society” without embracing minorities because “capital is too strong for labor alone.” One of the main reasons for the alienation of American youth, Rustin believed, was the inability to bring peace, combat racism, and eradicate poverty. Earlier in the year, Rustin was involved in combating right-to-work legislation. Speaking at the California Negro Leadership Conference in San Francisco, Rustin argued that right-to-work efforts are supported by “practically every racist in the country.” Deeming the right-to-work phrase a “deceptive” and “insidious” slogan, Rustin responded to an officer of the National Right to Work Committee by saying that the leaders of right to work can be found on “every right wing letterhead,” and have opposed every social and economic reform that would benefit Black workers.

Next we looked at the pamphlet titled “The Anatomy of Frustration.” Full versions of the speech are available online, including the audio and the pamphlet. Rustin delivered this speech at the 55th National Commision meeting of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith on May 6th, 1968 in New York City. The organization, now known as the Anti Defamation League (ADL), is an anti-hate group founded in 1913 in response to antisemitism and bigotry, with a goal of securing justice and fair treatment to all. In his speech, Rustin explores the debate between violent and non-violent action, again emphasizing the importance of coalition building, and he specifically requests “the understanding, cooperation and aid of Jews.” His advocacy for solidarity acknowledged “negro anti-semitism” but urged the audience to ”remember that the issue never can be simply a problem of Jew and gentile or black and white. The problem is man’s inhumanity to man.” Through this address Rustin indicates his commitment to integrationism in the era of rising Black radicalism. This advocacy of Black-Jewish harmony and support for Israel, were both major themes of his later years and were pretty controversial among other black activists. Many younger militants saw him as an “Uncle Tom”, which was further emphasized when in 1968, he backed the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), who had majority Jewish leadership, over black activists fighting over the New York City teacher’s strike. The nearly six month long strike began in May 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days and increasing racial tensions between Blacks and Jews. Rustin’s decision to acknowledge anti-semitism on the part of African Americans, but not racism by Jewish individuals seems to show a prioritization of his larger goals and distancing himself further from the Black Power movement. This seems especially clear when stating that he does not believe racism can be “solved on an individual basis”, recognizing the need for individuals to use racist institutions depending on their circumstances. Ultimately Rustin believed in the importance of institutional change, which meant working in solidarity with different groups of people, and working toward the goal of economic justice. 

Speech from the 8th AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention, 1969.

The next speech is an address by Bayard Rustin from the 8th AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention in 1969. In his speech Rustin shows his true commitment to the labor movement by declaring that the movement has the answers to a large number of questions, because several issues are interrelated to the issue of economic justice. In the speech he delves into why he believes the relationship between labor and black coalition is the most powerful group and why people need to continue to champion this work. He also talks about black rage and white fear, and his belief that they are rooted in the same problem, which is people not making enough money. He describes whtie fear as white people feeling threatened by black people due to their positions (job/social) being precarious, while black rage comes from black people feeling like they can never do better due to societal barriers. While he notes that he understands why black rage emerged though he also states that it has led to negative things that do not help the overall cause. Thus he makes the argument that the most powerful coalition is labor and black coalition, despite the desire of groups like the Black Power Movement and Nixon, who wanted to divide them. He wanted to leave separatism out of it and integrate Black individuals into the labor movement. This discussion on black rage and white fear, is another example of his words still having relevance years later. 

On May 29, 1973, Bayard Rustin appeared on Labor News Conference, a public affairs program sponsored by the AFL-CIO. Rustin was interviewed by Ronald Sarro, congressional correspondent for the Washington Star-News, and Paul Delaney of the New York Times’ Washington bureau. Rustin begins by saying that the “period for marching was over,” and “politics was the new name of the game.” According to Rustin, “everything Black people need in the United States…must come from Congress,” placing the responsibility on the federal government because “no local governments have the funds.” Rustin also emphasized that the War on Poverty was “never a war” and was never “addressed to eliminating poverty.” Rustin continues to emphasize the role of the federal government, stating that “anything that was decent was the result of a federal initiative.” Rustin cites suffrage, equal rights, the Wagner Act, and emancipation as examples of federal initiatives. Rustin also championed the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus, which was more focused on legislative leadership than civil rights leadership, and stated that President Nixon had been a “complete disaster,” citing a recent rise in Black poverty under the Nixon administration. This interview shows how Bayard Rustin priorities shifted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially from his earlier, more directly disobedient actions of the 1930s and 1940s.

American Negroes and Israel, 1974

The last essay highlighted for this post is titled, “American Negroes and Israel.” This essay was published by the Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1974. Rustin begins by plainly stating “while traditional Black leadership has been generous in embracing Israel’s cause the same cannot be said for Black nationalists or separatists.” Rustin argues that critics of Israel have misrepresented their politics towards African nations. While Israel had supported African colonies, there had not been historic ties between African nations and Arabs. He insisted that suggesting otherwise was a “substantial rewriting of history and disregarding the tensions between Blacks and Arabs which exist to this day.” By showing a stark divide between the two nations, Rustin attempts to expose the myth of a cohesive, progressive “Third World” of underdeveloped countries. Though he believed that the state of Israel had been guilty of injustices against Palestinians, Rustin contended that the Middle Eastern states were also at fault for not coming to an agreement. Even going so far as to say that they were exploiting their refugee problems to legitimize their aggression, and as a means of propaganda. Rustin concluded by stating there needs to be a permanent peace solution from negotiations, which required the legitimization of both nations. This essay illustrates Rustin’s engagement with world affairs and his support for the state of Israel, which became a large part of his politics in his later years. Historian Randall Kennedy wrote that Rustin viewed support for Israel as an extension of his commitment to democracy and civil rights. A year after writing this piece, Rustin joined other Black leaders in creating the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC). According to Rustin, the group would “foster a better understanding of the democratic nature of Israeli society” and attempt to counter anti-Israel propaganda. This consistent support of Israel was yet another point of contention between Rustin and many leftists or radical black power activists. 

A deeper investigation into the words and writings of Bayard Rustin reveal a more complex history, often obscured by narratives that have marginalized Rustin due to political affiliations, sexuality, and pacifism. Yet, even after he passed, Rustin has been consistently remembered in a complicated way. For example, in his obituary in the Chicago Defender, Rustin was remembered as a complex, intense man, with a flair for advocacy and a passion for detail.” The obituary also acknowledged that as Rustin aged, his increasing support for unions and Israel brought some criticism from members of the Black community, with some viewing Rustin as an “Uncle Tom.” Among those with critical views of Rustin was James Farmer, founding member of CORE, who viewed Rustin as having “no credibility in the Black community,” adding that Rustin’s commitment was “to labor, and not the Black man.” Rustin’s belief that the Black community’s problems were economic and not racist were, in Farmer’s view, “counter to Black community thinking.” Roughly a month after Rustin passed, his close friend Norman Hill wrote a personal tribute to him in the New Pittsburgh Courier, where he referred to Rustin as a “legendary and tenacious tactician and organizer,” with a “fearless devotion to principle and direct action that provided the “monumental building blocks” that “made the civil rights movement the powerful moral juggernaut that changed the nation.” Hill viewed opinions such as Farmers’ to be “shortsighted” and “inaccurate,” suggesting that Rustin’s consistent denouncement of Black Power was rooted in his pacifism. Regarding Rustin’s faith in labor, Hill argued that Rustin acknowledged that, as workers, most Black men and women had a “stake in a strong and vibrant trade union movement.” Hill also acknowledged that it is difficult to “capture the multi-faceted dimensions of this complex and multi-talented man,” adding that Rustin’s “intolerance for injustice was limitless,” as he was on involved in issues ranging from refugees to gay rights.

By highlighting some of Rustin’s speeches, writings, and interviews from the APRI series of the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department records, we intended to show Rustin’s contributions to civil rights and labor, along with how he was attacked and marginalized within the movements due to his political leanings and sexuality. Because pandemic-related access restrictions have limited us to digitized material since March 2020, this is far from the totality of materials related to Bayard Rustin in our collections. We look forward to sharing more material from the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department records ahead of the completion of the ongoing project to digitize more of these records. Please reach out to us if you have any questions. Thank you for reading. 

Alan Wierdak is the archive specialist for the George Meany Labor Archive, and a graduate student in History and Library Science. 

Mieko Palazzo is the new student assistant for the George Meany Labor Archive, and a graduate student in Library Science.

The Meany Labor Archive can be reached via email at meanylaborarchives@umd.edu

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