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Michael G. Long Headshot

Bayard Rustin: Politically Targeted, Spiritually Resilient, Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient

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Bayard Rustin had just eight weeks to plan the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and by all accounts his leadership was visionary and masterful. It's also no doubt part of the reason that today he is posthumously receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The prestigious award, coupled with the attention he's received in media coverage of the anniversary, means Rustin is finally emerging from the shadows of history.

He's been there a long time.

As a former Communist, and especially as an openly gay man in the Age of Closets, Rustin often worked with colleagues who did their best to keep him deep in the long shadows they cast. The story of Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1960 is particularly shocking.

In June of that year, Rustin arranged for King and the great labor leader A. Phillip Randolph to announce that they would lead nonviolent demonstrations at the national conventions of both parties. After hearing the announcement, Rep. (and Rev.) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem, wanted to squash the march on the Democrats, so he enlisted an intermediary to phone King with a threat: Unless the civil rights leader called off the march, Powell would tell the media that King and Rustin were having an affair.

They were not; the threat was hollow.

But King was not a profile in courage at this point. Fearful that such a rumor would irrevocably taint him, and feeling pressure from conservative Baptist ministers in the movement, he cut Bayard out of his inner circle of advisors.

It was a brutal act of discrimination.

Up until that moment Rustin had engineered much of the construction of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had schooled King in Gandhian nonviolence and tactics, ghostwritten some of his speeches and articles, built him his first national platform at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, steered him to practice coalition politics with labor and liberals, and even helped to conceive and organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Rustin was "crushed," according to Rachelle Horowitz, his longtime friend and assistant--crushed that he was no longer even in the shadows.

But King came calling again--two years later. During the Birmingham campaign in 1963, King longed yet again for Rustin's tactical advice--Rustin once said King could not organize a couple of vampires to go to a bloodbath--and took steps to reintegrate Rustin into the inner sanctum of advisors. Rustin "lit up," according to Horowitz, and went rushing back.

But why? Why would he ever go back to a man who had hurt him so deeply? To a movement that had sought to marginalize him?

"Bayard was just a forgiving person, especially toward Dr. King," says Walter Naegle, Rustin's longtime companion.

Rustin was also resilient--a virtue he no doubt learned not only from the Prodigal Son, one of his favorite Bible stories, but also from Julia Rustin, his spiritually fierce grandmother, who reared him in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Schooled by the Quakers, Julia was a leader in her local AME Church, a founding member of the local NAACP branch, and a community activist dedicated to helping those in need, including her beloved grandson.

When West Chester's finest neglected to offer Rustin a scholarship for college, even though he had earned more "honor points" than any other graduating senior, Julia put on her nicest dress and started knocking on doors. Her determination paid off when she landed in the office of Bishop R. R. Wright, a wealthy AME minister in Philadelphia, who saw fit to help Rustin win a music scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio.

Bayard fondly remembered his grandmother as a "dealer in relieving misery." Year after year, she taught him to embrace not only the Quaker belief that the best way to set captives free is by using the spiritual weapons of nonviolence, but also the black church's conviction that God demands the liberation of the oppressed right here and right now. So whenever you have a chance to free the slaves, move it!

Rustin never stated his exact reasons for going back to King, but whatever the case may be, we are deeply indebted to him for returning to the fire. Because of his ability to forgive and move on, we learned how to march really well--how to harness our passion and use nonviolence and direct action techniques in pursuit of equal justice under law.

Perhaps even more important, Rustin taught us to believe in ourselves, in our own ability to transform individuals and societies steeped in discrimination, deaf to the calls of compassion, and yet never beyond redemption.