A MAN BEHIND THE SCENES. Bayard Rustin: giant of peace, fearless civil-rights worker

Bayard Rustin - a big man, but soft spoken; an athlete, but nonviolent - was correctly labeled the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement. He also was the man behind the scenes, the man in the trenches of many a human rights battle, whether it was seeking peace in Vietnam, working with the Polish labor movement Solidarity in New York, or advising the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. A husky six-footer, topped by a flair of white hair in his later years, Mr. Rustin, who died Monday, was best known as the architect of the Aug. 28, 1963, ``March on Washington'' which attracted more than 200,000 participants and provided the setting for Dr. King's famed ``I Have a Dream'' speech.

As a young journalist in the South in the 1960s, this writer remembers Rustin, a man rarely in the public spotlight, setting guidelines for passive resistance and peaceful demonstrations. In the background, he restrained angry blacks who were tired of bowing and scraping to Jim Crow laws and practices. They followed his discipline, or they didn't participate.

Rustin did not speak with the resonance of most black leaders and preachers, but he spoke with authority. He stood his ground with black militants without having to out-shout them. ``I know you may not be in the mood to take abuse quietly after being mistreated for so many years,'' he would tell them. ``But we cannot afford to needlessly sacrifice our people and our cause in a fit of anger.''

A man who participated in the nation's first nonviolent sit-in and went to jail in North Carolina in 1947, Rustin defined the discipline for many of King's demonstrations.

His own mentor was the late A. Phillip Randolph, for many years a national labor leader as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which in the heyday of passenger trains was the most powerful black union in the nation. Rustin was the designated youth director when Randolph first threatened a march on Washington in 1941 in protest of the failure of the nation's defense industry to hire Negroes. That planned march was called off after President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Later Rustin, as conscientious objector during World War II, served 2 years in jail.

When Mr. Randolph called for the march in 1963 he tapped Rustin to be chief planner. In 1964 Rustin became president of the newly organized A. Philip Randolph Institute, an educational, civil rights, and labor organization.

A native of West Chester, Pa., Rustin was one of 12 children reared by his grandparents. He decided to fight for human rights as a teen-ager, he told people, when he played varsity football with the West Chester state championship high school team and a restaurant refused to serve him and threw him out. ``From that point on I took the position that I would not accept segregation,'' he said.

Throughout his adult life, Rustin, a Quaker, joined virtually any movement that advocated peace and nonviolence. He flirted with communism (in the Young Communist League) for five years, 1936-41. Quitting the league, he commented: ``It was inescapably clear that I had been wrong.''

In his public life Rustin was a controversial figure who never veered from his stand for peace and for nonviolence in his fight for human rights. Black power activists harshly criticized him as too moderate when he refused to participate in the Harlem riots of 1964 or to support violent protests against the assassination of Dr. King in 1968.

``I'm prepared to be a `Tom' if it's the only way I can save women and children from being shot down in the street,'' he said in the Harlem crisis.

When black activists demanded black studies in the nation's colleges, Rustin balked. ``What are `soul' courses worth in the real world?'' he asked.

``They want to know if you can do mathematics or write a correct sentence.'' He called black studies ``the easy way out.''

Rustin never sought the easy way.

When critics deplored a 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (now a Democratic senator from New York) describing the decay of the Negro family, Rustin said the report might be subject to ``grave misuse.''

But he said Dr. Moynihan was a ``very honest man trying to do his best. He is not a racist, and he is not giving aid and comfort to racists. ... The problem is poverty.''

Of Rustin, Senator Moynihan says: ``He taught us love, and he gave us peace.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A MAN BEHIND THE SCENES. Bayard Rustin: giant of peace, fearless civil-rights worker
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today