The Lost Prophet

28 Aug

Bayard Rustin with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956What with the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the more recent, controversial SCOTUS decisions, Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor, offering Federal recognition to same-sex couples in states legalizing same-sex marriage and removing legal obstacles for homesexual Californians to marry, it’s a propitious time to reevaluate Bayard Rustin.

For those who have heard of Rustin, few understand the immense contributions he made to the civil rights movement. In 1963, he spent only ten weeks planning the March on Washington, still one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. Most credit King for adopting Gandhi’s tireless tactics of non-violence. But Brother Outsider, an award-winning documentary about Rustin’s life, showed he introduced King to these ideals. Rustin also reportedly came up with the idea of selling buttons, at 25 cents each, to fund the march — a tribute to the power of his grassroots organizing.

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In light of the changing attitudes of recent times, Rustin may finally receive the attention owed to him for his substantial contribution. At this year’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama decided to award Rustin posthumously with the Presidential Medal for Freedom, the highest civilian honor. “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights,” the White House said of the President’s decision to honor Rustin this year.

But what really makes Rustin a compelling figure was his commitment to Gandhian non-violence.

A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.

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In February 1956, when Bayard Rustin arrived in Montgomery to assist with the nascent bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. had not personally embraced nonviolence. In fact, there were guns inside King’s house, and armed guards posted at his doors. Rustin persuaded boycott leaders to adopt complete nonviolence, teaching them Gandhian nonviolent direct protest.

Apart from his career as an activist, Rustin the man was also fun-loving, mischievous, artistic, gifted with a fine singing voice, and known as an art collector who sometimes found museum-quality pieces in New York City trash. Historian John D’Emilio calls Rustin the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement.

At some point – the 100th anniversary? – all Americans should ponder the thornier issue, why an MLK, Jr. becomes a secular saint, and Bayard Rustin has to wait lifetimes, to gain grudging approval.

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