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Michael G. Long Headshot

Bayard Rustin, Mr. March on Washington at 100

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This year marks the centennial of the birth of Bayard Rustin, one of the most significant yet ignored figures in U.S. history. Rustin was the brilliant strategist of the pinnacle event in U.S. protest politics: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was also an openly gay Quaker often cast into history's shadows by his colleagues in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

The story of King and Rustin is particularly shocking.

In 1960, Rustin had 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.

But for reasons still not clear, Congressman 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 a gay affair.

They were not; the threat was hollow.

But King was not a profile in courage when confronting potential media coverage of Rustin's gay sexuality, and because of deep fears of being tainted, he cut Bayard out of his inner circle of advisors.

It was an especially brutal act of prejudice because up to 1960 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, 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).

For two long years, King did not open the dustbin that he had swept Rustin into, but by 1963 he was floundering and desperate for Rustin's tactical advice. (Bayard once said that King could not organize a couple of vampires to go to a bloodbath.) And when King came calling again, Rustin "lit up," according to Rachelle Horowitz, Bayard's longtime friend and assistant.

Why would Rustin ever go back to King? Why would he ever go back to a leader who had sent him into exile for more than two years -- an exile from the work he loved, craved and excelled at?

One possible reason is that Bayard Rustin was his grandmother's son.

Rustin was reared by his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin, in West Chester, Pa. 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. Bayard fondly remembered her as a "dealer in relieving misery."

Under his grandmother's spiritual tutelage, Rustin learned that when the call for help comes, you answer. 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. When the God of the Exodus comes calling, move it!

A second possible reason relates to the spiritual practice of forgiveness. When I asked Walter Naegle, Rustin's companion in the last 10 years of his life, why Rustin would ever go back to King, he said, "Bayard was just a forgiving person, especially toward Dr. King."

Indeed, one of Rustin's favorite parts of Christian scripture was the Parable of the Prodigal Son -- the story of the young man who squanders his inheritance so effectively that he ends up living among pigs but then rises up from his despair, seeks forgiveness from his father and celebrates the joy of being reconciled with his family.

It was this moving parable of forgiveness and redemption that Rustin turned to when prison authorities placed him in administrative segregation for having engaged in sex with other prison inmates during World War II. In a lonely cell, and with the Prodigal Son as his inspiration, Rustin committed himself to rising again -- to seeking forgiveness from those he felt he had betrayed and, equally significant, to offering it to others in turn, so that all of them, together, could fight on for freedom.

Why did Rustin go back to King in 1963?

Although he never stated his exact reasons, it seems clear that Rustin's decision to return to King's inner circle was in accord with his earthy spirituality -- faith-fueled commitments to the nonviolent work of liberating the oppressed right now and to the difficult practice of seeking and offering forgiveness along the rugged path to freedom.

Whatever his specific reasons for going back, we are deeply indebted to Rustin for his courage to return to the fire. Because of his vision and tactical brilliance, millions of us have been able to turn to Aug. 28, 1963 -- that scorching hot day when King shared his dream -- for inspiration and instruction for building "the beloved community" on earth.

It was Bayard Rustin who taught us how to march that day -- how to use Gandhian nonviolence and direct action techniques in pursuit of divine and human justice. Perhaps even more important, he taught us to believe in ourselves, in our own ability to transform a society and culture deaf to the calls of compassion.

Whether or not we know it, those of us who have marched on Washington and in our various communities since then -- for women's rights, GLBT rights, peace and justice, immigrants, universal health care -- have followed the guiding light of Rustin's spiritual politics.

Thanks for lighting our path, Bayard, and Happy Birthday.