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. 

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AFL-CIO Films on YouTube!

We now have 40 short films from our AFL-CIO film collection uploaded to George Meany Labor Archives playlist on the Hornbake Library YouTube channel! Many of these films were digitized as part of the “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History In America,” exhibit. This post intends to expand and explore upon a selection of films that we not only think are interesting, but also contextually relevant to the present day.

The first of these films is “CORE: Freedom Ride,” 1961, Presented by the Social Action Commission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Narrated by James Farmer, National Director of CORE and founder of the Freedom Rides, this film recounts the experiences of Freedom Riders shortly after the rides ended in December 1961. This film includes footage from the Freedom Rides, and testimony from Freedom Riders Jim Peck, Albert Bigelow, and Genevieve Hughes.

You can view all the videos in the George Meany Labor Archives playlist and explore more from the Labor history collections online. Have a question? Contact us!

May Day in the Meany Labor Archives!

Today is May Day! Also known as International Workers’ Day. May Day is considered an international labor holiday. This post highlights some of the materials in our collections related to May Day. Much of our May Day material can be found in the May Day, 1885-1986 folder in the vertical file collection, and the Haymarket folders in the Morris B. Schnapper collection!

May Day was created by a resolution initiated by American Socialists at the International Socialist Congress in Paris, France, in July of 1889. The purpose of May Day was to gain support for an eight-hour work day. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, precursor to the American Federation of Labor, and the Knights of Labor cooperated in preparing for a general strike in U.S. cities on May 1, 1886. And on that day, approximately 350,000 American workers went on strike, impacting over 11,000 businesses. Although workers in New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, and other cities participated, Chicago was widely considered the center of May Day agitation, largely due to Chicago being one of the few cities with broad union and radical solidarity in support of the eight-hour day.

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African-Americans in the Early Labor Movement

DYK that labor unions did not allow African-Americans to become members back in the day? Being a member of a union was important to be able to bargain for workers’ rights and fight against the discrimination that black workers faced. Many skilled black workers sought to join unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) between 1881 and 1915. But, white craft union members, who were primarily affiliated with the AFL, were afraid of the competition and didn’t allow African Americans to join. On the other hand, industrial unions were more accepting of black workers.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) union members pose with locomotive firemen, ca. 1940. AFL-CIO Photographic Print Collection (RG96-001)

Who were early allies?

The Knights of Labor, the AFL until 1915, the United Mine Workers of America, the International Longshoreman’s Union, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Some black workers allowed to join:

The Teamsters, the Cigar Makers, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the Carpenters, and the Printers.

Very few black workers allowed to join:

The Pressmen, the Lithographers, the Photo-Engravers, the Iron Steel and Tin Workers, the Molders, the Pattern Makers, the Glass Workers, the Boot and Shoe Workers, and the Wood Workers

For more information about the relationship of the civil rights movement and the labor movement, visit our exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” in person or online or email us at askhornbake@umd.edu.


Jen Eidson is a Special Collections Processing Archivist in the University of Maryland Libraries.

The Labor Movement and Film, Part 2: “For the Union Makes Us Strong”

Let’s continue on the journey of exploring the Labor History Collections films that are featured in the “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” exhibit! In part 1 of this blog series, we looked at Leading the Way: Black Trade Unions in South Africa, Pay Equality, To Dream, and Solidarity Day. All four of these films explored various events from history that correlate to the social justice topics that are discussed in the displays. Though the topics may be different, the films help viewers understand how social justice issues and the labor movement are intertwined and how historical events resonate today.

The film Toxic Earth explores the alliance between the labor and environmental justice movements. Today, environmental topics are always in the news and are being discussed in political debates. The ability to watch this discussion transform within the context of the labor movement can help us see how we have gotten to the point of the conversation we are in today.

“Today’s environment is the one we will earn and choose by organizing and working on the issues of occupational and environmental health. By demanding “Right To Know” laws, controls on acid rain, strict regulations, and enforcement of standards. The alternative is leaving life and death decisions in the hands of polluting corporations, relaying on lax and inadequate government supervision. Our greatest strength is in working together.”

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The Labor Movement and Film, Part 1: “For the Union Makes Us Strong”

There are many films that allow you to actually see and hear events from history at University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. For the Labor History Archives exhibit, “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America,” the labor history archives team wanted you to have the ability to experience these historical events. We are showcasing eight video clips that visitors can enjoy within the gallery space and are easily accessible on an iPad. The films that we chose touch on a variety of topics that correlate to the displays. Many of the films that we are showcasing probably have not been seen since they originally aired. Since we were able to digitize these original copies, they will be preserved and easily accessible to everyone online.

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Erin Berry looking through all eight clips that are easy viewable on an iPad in the Hornbake Library gallery.

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Curator’s Choice: Favorite Item in the Labor History Exhibit

For the past year I have helped co-curate the Labor History Collections exhibit, “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America.” It has been an exciting and rewarding experience that has taught me so much about the vast history of the labor movement. One of the displays that I designed and installed was “Labor, Recreation, and Rest: The Movement for the Eight-Hour Day”. While looking through the vast Labor History Collections here at University of Maryland, Special Collections and University Archives, I came upon a very odd and fragile document. At first I did not know the significance, only that it was House Resolution 8357 and was approved by President Harrison on August 1, 1892.

H.R. 8357, 1892

House Resolution 8537, the first federal resolution for the eight-hour workday.

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Curator’s Choice: Favorite Item in the Labor History Exhibit

Asking an archivist to pick their favorite item in their exhibit may be the most challenging question you could ever ask them. After spending the past year assisting in all aspects of the exhibit For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America, I noticed that one of the most popular items I selected for the exhibit was the United Farm Workers flag. The flag, signed by famous figures Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, commemorates the historic Delano grape strike. The five-year strike started on September 8, 1965 and changed the face of the American labor movement and its attitude towards immigrant workers.

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Jen Wachtel with the United Farm Workers flag commemorating the Delano grape strike.

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Are You Married or Going to be Married?: The Labor Movement & the Business Woman

We are celebrating American Business Women’s Day! In the spirit of this holiday, we will be highlighting an item from the Labor History Collections’ exhibit, “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America.”

Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, women entered the workforce en masse due to war time economic demands. Once the war was over and the men returned home, many women wanted to stay in the workforce because it gave them a newfound independence. With more women working, the labor movement had to make sure that their rights as workers were protected, as well as the already established rights centered on male workers.

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The photos above are examples of the various jobs that women were employed in during the time war efforts. Still Images, Photographic Prints.

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