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Bayard Rustin in His Own Words: "I Must Resist"

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This past year we have celebrated the centennial of the birth of Bayard Rustin, the brilliant strategist of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well as many other campaigns for civil and human rights. As the centennial comes to a close this weekend, it seems appropriate that we step aside and let Rustin, an openly gay man often cast into the shadows by homophobic politicians and civil rights leaders, speak for himself. Here, then, are a few excerpts from some of his historic letters and statements:

To Local Board No. 63, Nov. 16, 1943, on his decision to resist the draft:

Today I feel that God motivates me to use my whole being to combat by nonviolent means the ever-growing racial tension in the United States; at the same time the state directs that I shall do its will; which of these dictates can I follow -- that of God or that of the state? Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the state. But when the will of God and the will of the state conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God. If I cannot continue in my present vocation, I must resist.

From the draft of an article sent to Martin Luther King, Jr., Sept. 28, 1956, after Rustin encouraged him to keep pacifism and Christian spirituality "front and center" in the fight against racial segregation:

The basic issue, however, is not political. It is moral and spiritual. For Christians it has to do with the scriptural teaching that all men, whatever their race or color, are children of one Father, created by him for an eternal destiny, and therefore of infinite worth. ... It has to do with the commandment that even as God in Christ loved us, so shall we love one another. ... A segregated church, a church which bars Christians on grounds of race from the very table of our Lord, is in that respect not a church of Christ. In such a crisis as we experience in our land today, it daily crucifies our Lord anew.

To the children of Cleveland, Dec. 3, 1969, after a city leader had invited him to write a letter for public exhibit designed to help children understand "the magnificent times in which we live":

[W]e must remember that we cannot hope to achieve democracy and equality in such a way that would destroy the very kind of society which we hope to build. If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end. If we desire a society in which men are brothers, then we must act towards one another with brotherhood. If we can build such a society, then we would have achieved the ultimate goal of human freedom.

To the press, June 14, 1976, after meeting with President Gerald Ford at the White House:

The most urgently needed national policy is a commitment to full employment. When black unemployment is above 13 percent ... we have a major national crisis. When overall unemployment by official statistics remains above seven percent ... we have a major national crisis. ... We need to rededicate ourselves to the original principles of the nation. We must have policies which make it possible for all of our citizens to pursue happiness.

To the editor of the Afro-American, Sept. 12, 1978, after reading an article about the 1963 March:

[T]he demonstration bore the title "March for Jobs and Freedom." We realized even then that true freedom and racial equality cannot be achieved within the context of a stagnant economy, unable to provide blacks with permanent, good-paying jobs.

To New York City Mayor Edward Koch, April 29, 1986, after publicly testifying in support of gay rights legislation:

In my statement I cited the major lesson I had learned in fighting for human rights for 50 years for people all over the world. That lesson is simple: no group is ultimately safe from prejudice, bigotry, and harassment so long as any group is subject to special negative treatment.


And, finally, to go back a few years, a concluding word of encouragement to a Wayne State University professor, Aug. 5 1969, after she had complained about how tired she was of having to deal with anti-Semitism:

Mrs. Greenstone, I am 59 years old. I am black and I have lived with and fought racism my entire life. I have been in prison 23 times -- serving 28 months in a federal penitentiary and 30 days on a North Carolina chain gang, among other punishments.

I have seen periods of progress followed by reaction. I have seen the hopes and aspirations of Negroes rise during World War II, only to be smashed during the Eisenhower years. I am seeing the victories of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations destroyed by Richard Nixon.

I have seen black young people become more and more bitter. I have seen dope addiction rise in the Negro communities across the country.

I have been in a bombed church. My best friends, closest associates, and colleagues-in-arms have been beaten and assassinated. Yet, to remain human and to fulfill my commitment to a just society, I must continue to fight for the liberation of all men. There will be times when each of us will have doubts. But I trust that neither of us will desert our great cause.

Today, more than one hundred years after his birth, we can best honor Rustin's "great cause" by heeding a warning he once delivered about Gandhi.

"Already," Rustin wrote, "they have begun to do to Gandhi what has been done to Jesus--worship him as an unobtainable ideal. That is the sin of men of goodwill--not really to believe in their own power."

At last, for Rustin, it all comes down to us.

To people power: your power, my power, our power.

Our power to resist. To dream of a common cause. To create a new world.

A world, not just a nation, marked by peace, unity, and economic justice.

That's what Bayard Rustin ultimately taught us to believe in -- ourselves.

Dare we do the same?