Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. Arguably the leader of the American Civil Rights movement, King was a bastion of nonviolent protest and equality and was award the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. MLK Jr. was a gifted speaker, an inspiring voice at a time when America needed a visionary.
When it came to organized, nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King Jr. got a lot of renown. MLK Jr.’s charisma certainly carried the movement in critical ways, but the fact of the matter is that the ideas he espoused were not necessarily his own. There was an idea man behind the face of the movement and his name was Bayard Rustin.
Here lies a little-known backstory of the man behind The Man; a story of mentorship, commitment, and reprisal.
Rustin was a black man born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. Born out of wedlock, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandmother, Julia, was a Quaker and instilled in Bayard the Quaker value of peace and equality of all people.
Bayard took this to heart over the years. Early on, he took up the fight for racial equality. His first bout of activism was with the communist movement, but he left after a few years when WWII changed communist priorities away from equal rights for African Americans. It didn’t take him long to find a place at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement as it’s remembered today.
He sought out new mentors, including A. Philip Randolph and A.J. Muste, both socialists, the latter of whom exposed Rustin to the teachings of Mahatma Ghandi. In 1942, 13 years before Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin refused to give up his seat on a public bus and was arrested. He went on to organize the first of the Freedom Rides in the south.
Rustin was no stranger to getting arrested. He was a conscientious objector to military service in WWII and spent 1944 – 1946 in federal prison for “draft dodging”. In 1948, shortly after Mahatma Ghandi was killed, he travelled to India to learn the ways of non-violent resistance. More than 10 years later, MLK Jr. took a similar trip with the help of the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee, an experience that solidified his commitment to nonviolence.
Indeed, it was Bayard Rustin who insisted on maintaining and teaching nonviolent resistance in Civil Rights protests. With Rustin’s influence and King Jr.’s leadership, it became a hallmark of the movement.
In 1953, Bayard Rustin was arrested again, this time for homosexual behavior. Rustin had always been openly gay — unheard of in that era — but he attributed his arrest to recklessness on his part and he was ashamed of it. King and Rustin later went on to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but the arrest continued to haunt him. In 1960, King Jr. distanced himself from Rustin after his opponents threatened to spread rumors about a (nonexistent) sexual relationship between the two.
Though Rustin had been ousted from King’s inner circle, he was asked back to help organize the massive March on Washington in 1963. Rustin’s was an expert in behind-the-scenes coordination of protests and thus was the definitive person for the job. His partner later described the logic behind Rustin’s approach to organizing events:
“You need to give your opposition a way to get out of the situation, to lose — with dignity — or to win. It’s fine to go out and say, ‘Hey, we want peace.’ I mean, George Bush would say that! But how do you get to that? What are the practical steps?”
The March on Washington attracted 200,000 – 300,000 people to Washington, D.C. in August 1963 and is perhaps best known for King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. Rustin can be seen standing behind King Jr. and he later gave his own speech outlining the actionable goals of the movement, including demands for legislative changes granting all people equal rights.
In November 2013, 50 years after the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom. Lost to history in many ways, it was one last hurrah for an unassuming man who played such a vital role to the mechanics of a movement that altered the practical definition of freedom in America.