Key Figures behind the March
Rustin, the Coordinator Extraordinaire
By Charles Euchner
Born: West Chester, PA
Work: Civil rights activist
Role in March: Chief Organizer
After years of controversy, Bayard Rustin lived for the day when he would coordinate a mass demonstration on the scale of the March on Washington. Since his college days three decades before, Rustin had worked behind the scenes to organize people for civil rights, labor, and peace.
Years before, W. E. B. Du Bois talked about the "twoness" of blacks in America: "One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." But if black America struggled with twoness, Rustin struggled with threeness, or fourness, or even moreness.
Bayard Rustin's manyness was palpable. Rustin could be formal and elegant, but he could also be rough, with his wrinkled linen suits and worn ties. He was tall and wiry—six feet one inch, 190 pounds—but moved like an athlete. Brown-skinned with a Clark Gable mustache—and a shock of an Afro that reached upward into a jagged flattop—Rustin was a kinetic force, always searching and moving. He lived on the road, but his apartment was rich and comfortable, filled with art from all over the world—centuries-old statues and paintings of Christ, Civil War–era lithographs and engravings, a Jacobean carved bed from the 1600s, Turkish rugs, and even columns from the old Penn Station. He could speak formally, with an affected British accent, or he could talk like a street agitator.
Rustin came from West Chester, Pennsylvania, a Quaker town 25 miles from Philadelphia. The son of a single mother, he did not know until he was 11 who was who in his own family. At that point, he learned that the couple he considered his parents, Janifer and Julia, were really his mother's parents; that the woman he considered his sister Florence was really his mother; and that his other "sisters" and "brothers" were really aunts and uncles.
Growing up in a Quaker community, Rustin embraced nonviolence, finding pacifism a compelling, consistent worldview: aggression begets aggression, love begets love, peace begets peace. Pacifism was close to absolute for Rustin. Morally, he did not believe that aggression and violence could build or repair anything. Violence spun out of control, breaking bodies and property and breeding resentment. But nonviolence could overcome even the most relentless violence.
"My activism did not spring from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing," Rustin said. "Those values were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal. The racial injustice that was present in this country during my youth was a challenge to my belief in the oneness of the human family. It demanded my involvement in the struggle to achieve interracial democracy, but it is very likely that I would have been involved had I been a white person with the same philosophy." Rustin's grandmother gave him Quaker values, but he attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church of his grandfather. That placed Rustin deep in the tradition of gospel music and emotional preaching.
The ever-dramatic Rustin adopted a British accent in high school, both to overcome stuttering and to assert his own independence. By taking on a different persona, he cloaked his nervousness. The accent gave him courage—and authority. He used the accent to confront racist bullies. When other blacks were refused service on Route 40, the corridor in Delaware and Maryland notorious for its Jim Crow ways, Rustin stood over his tormenters and demanded service. Rustin also used this persona at protests. At one demonstration in Brooklyn, Rachelle Horowitz, who worked closely with Rustin in her role as transportation coordinator for the March on Washington (and later served as the AFT's political director), was taken away in handcuffs. Rustin turned toward the police. "Officer," he said in his most dramatic British accent, "take those handcuffs off her immediately!" It worked. The cuffs came off.
A natural performer—on the tennis court, football field, stage, concert hall—Rustin once sang with Josh White and Leadbelly. He performed on White's album Chain Gang Songs. He traveled tens of thousands of miles a year, speaking and organizing. He organized and agitated wherever he was—the local theater, school, football field, churches, union halls, even jails.
Rustin first got involved in labor organizing in 1933. Expelled from both Wilberforce College and Cheyney State College, he moved to Harlem to live with his sister/aunt Bessie. Sitting at a park on 150th Street one day, he heard goons talking about a strike at Horn & Hardart, a chain of coin-operated self-service restaurants immortalized in Edward Hopper's painting Automat. They boasted about disrupting a labor picket line by throwing bricks at the restaurant and blaming the picketers. Rustin decided to join the picket line. Sure enough, someone threw a brick at the restaurant, and the police came and beat the demonstrators with clubs and carried them away to jail.
After spending a month volunteering for the planned 1941 march on Washington that never took place, Rustin worked full time for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a global organization dedicated to pacifism and disarmament.
In 1942, Rustin joined James Farmer, George Houser, and Bernice Fisher in creating the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), CORE was an integrated group dedicated to promoting civil rights. Unlike the NAACP, CORE was committed to nonviolent direct action. The organization would confront racism, physically—involving ordinary people in their own liberation. "Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable," he said. "The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don't turn."
CORE's boldest early experiment, the Journey of Reconciliation of 1947, tested recent court decisions that struck down segregation of all forms of interstate travel. Eight black men and eight white men—including Rustin—traveled together on buses through Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Freedom Riders were jailed several times. Rustin was sentenced to 22 days on a chain gang for violating North Carolina's Jim Crow laws.
As part of his creed of nonviolence, Rustin openly accepted physical attacks by others, believing his pacifism could change their hearts and minds. Serving time for refusing service in World War II, Rustin became a jailhouse activist, forcing racial integration of cells. But one white prisoner resented mixing with blacks. He attacked Rustin with a club, splintering the weapon, until he exhausted himself and could attack no more. Rustin took the blows with equanimity, protecting himself by crouching in a fetal position. A fellow prisoner later recalled: "Completely defeated and unnerved by the display of nonviolence, [Rustin's attacker] began shaking all over, and sat down."
Over the next decade, Rustin became one of the most prominent pacifists in America. He was the "American Gandhi" in training, admired equally for his intellect and courage.
Then he crashed. In January of 1953, after a speaking engagement in California, Pasadena police arrested Rustin on a morals charge. Rustin never hid his homosexuality—his flamboyant escapades were well known in the movement—but he was now publicly humiliated. A. J. Muste, his mentor at FOR, fired him. For six months, he wrestled with his conscience, concluding that excessive pride had led to his humiliation.
The War Resisters League, seeing an opportunity to work with the most gifted pacifist around, hired him. It was like a ball club getting a star slugger for a cut rate because of the star's past controversies. The War Resisters League gave him permission to go to Montgomery and advise Martin Luther King Jr., the young leader of the bus boycott. He also staged three marches on Washington—the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage and the 1958 and 1959 Youth March for Integrated Schools.
By the time of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was both the most gifted and the most damaged organizer in the civil rights movement. Given a chance, he could use the hard-earned wisdom of his many controversies to make the march a success.
Rustin's greatest lesson in planning came from his youthful involvement with the Young Communist League, a quarter century before.
"The minute you get a blueprint, you tend to get ends and means separated," Rustin later said. "Because if you got a blueprint, then any means is good enough to get to it. But I reverse the process: nonviolent creative action now, take care of the rest as you go along."
Charles Euchner is the author or editor of a dozen books and is the creator and principal of the Writing Code™, a writing program. Now a case writer at the Yale School of Management, he has taught writing at Yale University and was the founding executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University. This profile and the others of Randolph and Reuther are excerpted from Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington , by Charles Euchner. Copyright © 2010 by Charles Euchner. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
Reprinted from American Educator, Fall 2013