Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the day civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin was born. It’s a milestone in and of itself, but little occasion’s needed to remember the visionary organizer and activist.
Rustin was a master strategist who all but created the model of post-World War II nonviolent social movements in the U.S. He championed nonviolent tactics and introduced the Gandhian protest tactics that would become one of the hallmarks of the Civil Rights Movement. He’s best known for organizing the March on Washington in 1963, after which he was anointed the title of “Socrates” of the Civil Rights Movement.
From the outset of his life, Rustin seemed destined for a life fighting inequity around him. He was raised with Quaker schooling by his grandmother Julia Rustin who also happened to be a founding member of the local Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP. He was radicalized in the 1930s after the prosecution of the Scottsboro boys, nine black youth who had been falsely charged with raping a white woman in Alabama. Later, he’d join the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to protest discrimination in the military and then went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality, challenging bus segregation with civil disobedience a full decade before Rosa Parks would be arrested for doing the same. He later resisted the draft as a conscientious objector, and was imprisoned for his commitment to pacifism.
As a black gay man, he was often sidelined, kept from having a larger public profile. Others worried his sexuality was a liability for the movement. It never kept him from being a tireless activist and organizer, and to this day, his writing and words offer many important lessons for the fight for justice in the 21st century.
As Rustin once said, ”God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.”
“Brother Outsider,” a documentary about Rustin’s life is available to watch in full here.
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