When Walter Naegle reflects on the spirituality of his late partner, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, two things stick out in his mind.
One is silence. The other is singing.
“When he had to really consider a question or a problem, he would go into a long period of silence and just kind of sit quietly and mull over the issue before he would speak about it,” Naegle told Sojourners recently. “And I think that was pretty much true throughout his life.”
This interior silence was a contrast to Rustin’s public life as an organizer, which often involved speaking to groups across the country about issues of peace and social justice.
Those talks were “deeply founded in scripture,” peppered with references to Jesus and the Bible, Naegle said. When he finished speaking, Rustin often closed by singing a spiritual — songs written by Black Americans that incorporated themes from Hebrew Bible stories of moving from bondage to freedom.
Rustin, who died in 1987, is best known for helping Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. implement Gandhian tactics of nonviolence and for the key role he played organizing the 1963 March on Washington and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — two key components of the civil rights movement.
Less well-known are the particularities of Rustin's faith, including his deep roots in the Quaker and African Methodist Episcopal churches which drove his activism. Those two faith traditions, marked by silence and singing, respectively, echoed throughout Rustin’s life and work.
“My activism did not spring from being black,” Rustin wrote towards the end of his life. “Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values instilled in me by the grandparents who reared me. Those values were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”
‘West Chester was too small’
Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, which had a large Quaker population. The town, which had played a significant role in the Underground Railroad, was also home to many Black families that moved from the South during the Great Migration. The local Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, were abolitionists — but they still segregated their worship meetings.
Rustin was raised by his grandparents, Julia Davis and Janifer Rustin; his grandmother was educated by the Quakers, while his grandfather was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mary Ann Champion, whose grandmother and Davis were first cousins, recalled Davis’ tenacity and nurturing.
“She was one of those people who were, ‘How are you doing today?’ and ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Which way you're going?’” Champion, 94, told Sojourners. “I didn't know what the Quaker influence was besides being nice and honest and sweet ... They didn't have much, but whatever they had was yours.”
Champion remembered Davis, whom she called Ma Rustin, fondly. But she also remembered the racial tensions of the time, which she believes led the younger Rustin to leave West Chester and pursue social justice.
“White people were nuts back in that day,” she said. It was not unusual for the white people of West Chester to physically harass and attack Black residents, according to Champion. “They'd want to start a fight with you and knock you down the street and tear your clothes.”
“I think that's why he got out of West Chester,” she added. “West Chester was too small for that big head.”
An evangelist for nonviolence
Rustin didn’t forget his Quaker or AME roots when he left Pennsylvania.
After college, Rustin moved to New York City in the late 1930s. There he joined the Fifteenth Street Meeting, a Quaker meeting house in Manhattan, and became a member of the Young Communist League.
“He [later] dropped the Communism, although he remained a socialist,” said Dan Seeger, a pacifist and leader in several Quaker organizations who was the defendant in a landmark 1965 Supreme Court case that overturned his conviction for refusing the draft. Seeger knew Rustin later in the civil rights leader’s life.
Soon Rustin was working with A. Philip Randolph, who led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a Black labor union. After a stint with Randolph, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian nonviolence group, and the related organization, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE).
In his Pulitzer-winning Parting the Waters: America During the King Years 1954-1963 Taylor Branch described how Rustin and CORE’s first national director, James Farmer, learned the principles of nonviolence from Krishnalal Shridharani, author of War Without Violence, and a disciple of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi.
Those Gandhian principles led Rustin and many of his associates to choose prison over a draft deferment during World War II. Like others influenced by Quaker faith, Rustin was committed to resisting war, and spent two years, from 1944 to 1946, in federal prison. Afterward, he traveled to India, where he deepened his commitment to Gandhi’s teachings, which he later helped infuse into the U.S. civil rights movement.
In 1956, as King, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, and others faced indictment for organizing a boycott of segregated buses, Rustin brought his training in Gandhian nonviolence to Montgomery, Ala.
Branch described how Rustin induced the Black ministers who formed the core of the Montgomery bus boycott toward a greater embrace of nonviolence — encouraging them to hand themselves in after the indictments came down rather than wait for deputies to arrest them, for example, and even keeping someone from accidentally sitting on a loaded pistol during his first visit to King’s home.
Kept at an arm’s length
Rustin's stay in Montgomery wouldn’t last long. His homosexuality had long been an open secret, but in January 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena, Calif., for having sex with at least one other man in the back seat of a parked car. He spent several weeks in the Los Angeles County Jail and was forced to resign from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
When local reporters in Montgomery got wind of Rustin’s background — a gay, Black, draft-resisting, ex-Communist, formerly incarcerated man in the deep South — he had to leave town. Rustin arranged for the Rev. Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to take over advising King and the other leaders in Montgomery.
A decade later, when Rustin was organizing the March on Washington with his former mentor A. Philip Randolph, his past ties to the Communist Party and the arrest in Pasadena would come up again. Seeger recalled how Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina lambasted King for his association with Rustin. Despite a need for “Bayard and his talents” Seeger said that King would “maintain a certain arms length distance from [Rustin]” because of his sexuality and political affiliations.
Rustin’s key role in the March on Washington — despite the political liability that his background sometimes presented to the movement — was a testament to how indispensable he was to King and other civil rights leaders, Naegle said.
“Even when he was sent into exile a few times, eventually they brought him back, because he was the only person that could do the kind of thing he was doing,” Naegle said.
From protest to politics
Later in his life, Rustin’s views on nonviolence moderated significantly. He was notably silent during the height of the movement against the Vietnam War, and he even organized a full-page ad in The New York Times in 1970 that called on the U.S. to provide jet fighters to Israel.
“This totally astounded, astonished and dismayed Bayard's pacifist friends, including myself,” Seeger said.
At the time, Seeger said, Rustin defended himself from accusations that he was getting soft or selling out by explaining that he was moving from protest to politics — also the name of one of his most famous essays, published in Commentary in February 1965.
“In his view, protest movements were meant to be populated by purists, like he was in his youth,” Seeger said. “And they're meant to hold the line and hold up a golden standard. On the other hand, politicians doing the work of democracy have to give and take and have to compromise.”
Almost 40 years after Rustin’s seminal essay, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy wrote about this period of Rustin’s life for The Nation, in an essay pointedly titled “From Protest to Patronage.” According to Kennedy, Rustin’s political shifts had as much to do with staying in the good graces of his funders as they did with strategic considerations.
But Naegle said the shift in Rustin’s thinking, particularly on pacifism, began not in the mid-1960s but in the mid-1940s, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Rustin began to call himself a post-Niebuhr Quaker, after Rienhold Niebuhr, an influential professor at Union Theological Seminary and the founder of Christian realism who also abandoned strict nonviolence after World War II.
“It's one thing if you're facing your adversary on the street, whether it's a cop or it's another person, and you're trying to convince them through nonviolence as to the righteousness of your cause,” Naegle said. “Well, how do you do that when somebody drops an atomic bomb out of the sky?”
‘He never wrote anyone off’
Rustin changed in other ways as he got older, according to Naegle and Seeger. The references to scripture in his speeches became less frequent, for example. He still supported many Quaker causes — helping found the Mary McDowell Friends School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and serving on the governing board for the New York office of the American Friends Service Committee — though he rarely attended meetings.
“He was a Friend,” said Seeger, using another term for Quakers. “He never lost his membership. He never resigned his membership. But I never saw him darken the meetinghouse door.”
While Seeger and Rustin were both Quakers, he mostly got to know the civil rights organizer through social gatherings in New York City’s pacifist and labor circles. What he remembers most about Rustin is his ironclad mind, his wit, his eloquence, and his quickness to forgive. It was that spirit of warmth and loving kindness, more than attendance at worship meetings, that marked Rustin’s Quakerism.
Seeger also remembered occasions when someone would want to hear a song and Rustin would break out in his famous tenor at a social gathering — still strong in his later years.
“It was great to hear him arguing,” Seeger said. “It was great to have an argument with him. He was funny. He was always kind. He was embroiled in many controversies, but he never wrote anyone off. He never was hostile to anyone that I ever saw. People who disagreed with him and with whom he had public spats, if they came to him a couple of years later needing help, he was just there for them.”
If Rustin could talk to activists today, Naegle said, he would remind them to be nonviolent, gentle, and forgiving, and not to demonize their opponents. But he’d also encourage them to have a clear strategy — a list of goals they want to achieve and a clear plan for how to get there.
Rustin would also encourage activists today to stay in the fight, according to Naegle.
“There were times when he was deeply hurt by some of the things that were done to him or that happened to him,” Naegle said. “But again, he didn't pick up some marbles and walk off into the sunset. He took some time off and licked his wounds and cried a little and talked to his friends. And the next thing you knew, he was back in the ring for the next battle.”
Got something to say about what you're reading? We value your feedback!