WQCS Header Background Image
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bayard Rustin: An Architect Of The Civil Rights Movement You May Have Never Heard Of

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Bayard Rustin organized the historic March on Washington back in 1963 and introduced the idea of nonviolence to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NPR's history podcast Throughline has been doing a series of profiles of Black visionaries who have shaped the world we live in. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei of Throughline bring us Rustin's story.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Bayard Rustin moved to New York City in 1937. It was a big change from the small Quaker town he grew up in in Pennsylvania.

JOHN D'EMILIO: You know, he could walk along 125th Street in Harlem and see major theaters and Black-owned businesses.

ARABLOUEI: This is John D'Emilio, author of "Lost Profit: The Life And Times Of Bayard Rustin."

D'EMILIO: And Bayard, who is experiencing the feelings and the awareness that he was gay, thought it would be a safe place to be both racially and in the context of a city to explore his sexual desires.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: When Bayard first arrived in Harlem, he thought his future would be on the stage, singing. But his career soon took a turn towards activism.

D'EMILIO: The power of the call to social justice and the deep political activism of the Great Depression decade pointed him ultimately in that direction.

ABDELFATAH: Influenced by the labor and communist movements during this time, Bayard heard a voice that changed everything for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAHATMA GANDHI: I regard myself as a soldier, though a soldier of peace. I know the value of discipline and truth.

ARABLOUEI: It was the voice of Mahatma Gandhi.

D'EMILIO: For Rustin, in the 1930s, at a time of intense racism in the United States, the idea that a man of color was leading a movement against the world's largest empire was completely inspiring and, you know, awe-provoking.

ARABLOUEI: Bayard immersed himself in interviews and articles about Gandhi.

D'EMILIO: And then experienced almost - you could describe it as a conversion to nonviolence.

ARABLOUEI: He believed Gandhi had torn down an empire and changed the nation with little more than words and peaceful protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GANDHI: I can see that in the midst of death, life persists. In the midst of untruth, truth persists. In the midst of darkness, light persists.

ABDELFATAH: Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Bayard traveled around the U.S., spreading the message of nonviolence as he organized protests, marches and sit-ins. And then in 1956, he joined forces with a rising star in the Civil Rights Movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: That was the day that we started a bus protest, which literally electrified the nation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Way over yonder.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Way over yonder.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Way over yonder.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Way over yonder.

ABDELFATAH: Word of the Montgomery bus boycott spread quickly across the country.

D'EMILIO: With Dr. King identified as the key leader, there is obviously concern for his safety. And then Rustin arrives. They begin their discussions about strategy and tactics, and Rustin is explaining more about Gandhi and nonviolence. And he informs King that if you are going to adopt this principle of absolute nonviolence, you cannot have armed guards outside your home. It's simply inconsistent and is delivering the wrong message. Dr. King consults with the people he's working with. He consults with his wife, Coretta Scott King, and they make the decision that, in fact, Bayard Rustin is right. I think it was a very important moment in Dr. King's evolution as a leader in this movement, and it was done in a very quiet and nonassertive way by Bayard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSTIN BAYARD: I was an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King's for a number of years. Actually, I am the person who drew up plans for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

ARABLOUEI: Bayard, who was 17 years older than Dr. King, taught him everything he knew about Gandhi's philosophy and worked to elevate King's profile to a national level.

ABDELFATAH: But this was the 1950s, when gay men were targeted by the police constantly. And Bayard, an openly gay Black man, was seen as a threat by some within the movement.

D'EMILIO: So he learned how to become the organizer who mobilized other people who then were the ones who had the most visible public presence.

ABDELFATAH: And in 1963, when Bayard began to organize the March on Washington, he knew that Dr. King should be the face of it.

ARABLOUEI: Bayard had just a few months to put together what would become the largest march on the nation's capital.

RACHELLE HOROWITZ: Bayard would tell us to visualize and pull through it the whole day - you know, from the time a participant woke up in the morning, till they went to Washington, until they left.

ARABLOUEI: This is Rachelle Horowitz, who was part of the organizing team for the march.

HOROWITZ: Folding letters, mailing out mailings, calling up people on the phone. It was like the Dark Ages.

ABDELFATAH: Rachelle was in her early 20s and thought she was maybe in over her head, but she stuck with it for one simple reason.

HOROWITZ: Because Bayard told me I could do it. I mean, that's all.

ABDELFATAH: Disagreements came up along the way, but the thing that everyone agreed on was that the march had to be nonviolent.

HOROWITZ: Bayard, I think, knew from Day 1 that he was going to ask the New York City Black policemen to volunteer as marshals. And then he proceeded every day during the march to take a group of them out in the courtyard or the back of the friendship building and train them in nonviolent crowd control - holding hands and encircling people - should there be a disturbance.

ARABLOUEI: And when the day finally arrived, August 28, 1963, Bayard and his team woke up at the crack of dawn and watched as 250,000 people, who'd come by bus, train, car or plane, streamed into the National Mall. Bayard was a witness to a great change to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAYARD: What is more important to bring about change as a society - changed individuals or a changed social structure? The answer to that is very simple because if you don't start out with individuals who are determined to change something, you will never get a political consensus.

ABDELFATAH: After the march, President Kennedy invited the leaders of the event to the White House. And Bayard Rustin, who had worked tirelessly in the shadows of the movement, was finally recognized like never before.

SHAPIRO: That was Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei of the NPR podcast Throughline, and you can hear the whole episode and more Throughline episodes wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.