After orchestrating the seminal 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin continued organizing coalitions for jobs and freedom (the signature of the 1963 March) through labor unions, the Democratic party, and the civil rights movement.
Never abandoning his conviction that nonviolent direct action is the way to a just society, Bayard debated Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, among other advocates of black power who approved violence when necessary. The hatred preached from some of the aeries of black power struck Bayard as an ineffective “psychological purgative”—manifesting itself as a dead-end separatism.
With characteristically judicious language, in “An Open Letter [to Bayard] from Poet and Black Nationalist Amiri Baraka,” that rhetorical warrior charged: “Bayard, when you denounce us nationalists for teaching hate, based on your white folks’ analysis, you are actually functioning as the big gun of white oppression. . . . You are a slaveship profiteer, a paid pervert for the racist unions, and I feel it necessary to expose you.”
So did Richard Nixon. Bayard, making me envious, was on Nixon’s Enemies List. At a party celebrating that honor, a reporter asked Ba-yard’s reaction.
“I’m delighted,” he said. “Anyone who has his policies on the poor, the homeless, on those who need medical care—I hope I shall eternally be an enemy of a man who takes this view. Furthermore, I have never liked liars.”
When not organizing, Bayard, as he had been for decades, was traveling around the world as a nonviolent agitator for peace and human rights. In 1959, long before the March on Washington, he had, in the Algerian Sahara, been arrested for protesting French atomic-bomb tests. And he had been in India in 1948 for the first World Pacifist Conference.
In the PBS documentary Brother Outsider, Bayard’s longtime associate Rachelle Horowitz says of him on that trip: “He loved putting on various outfits. . . . Since he was so tall . . . parades of people would follow behind.” And Devi Prasad, a world-renowned direct-action pacifist, said of Bayard:
“He was a handsome, tall, black American. . . . He was one of the first people who openly accepted homosexuality; he didn’t hide it. . . . And I considered him very natural—and he had very beautiful companions, very handsome companions, so why not?”
Also in Brother Outsider, the luminous actress Liv Ullmann recalls being with Bayard later in his life. They first traveled together “to help refugees from Cambodia. And we traveled other places . . . until he died. . . . We came to one refugee camp, and they needed blood. A lot of us were really afraid to give blood. And [he] was the first one to say, ‘No, we will all give blood. Here’s my arm, and get going.’ And there was nobody who dared to say no.
“And I,” Liv Ullmann continued, “who have been so scared of those things all my life. . . . I was lying there on the ground and I did what Bayard did. And I’ve never felt so good in my life. . . . It was the way he did it. It was normal; this is what we are supposed to do. It’s normal to care about somebody at your side.”
Whenever I saw Bayard walking toward me on the street in the Village, I felt the same expectation as when I met Duke Ellington. Elegant in bearing, dress, and diction (as if he had been raised by an Oxford don), Bayard was the very embodiment of the life force—sharp of wit, observation, and delight in being Bayard Rustin.
A posthumous coda to his life (Bayard was also a musician and a compelling singer, who had once worked with Josh White) appeared last December 22 in Education Week, the most informative of all publications on schools:
“So proudly did West Chester, Pennsylvania, claim the civil rights luminary Bayard Rustin as its most famous native son that the school board decided to name its new high school after him.
“But that was before they found out that the late Mr. Rustin was gay, had belonged to a Communist group, and had refused to serve in World War II [he spent three years in prison as a conscientious objector]. Now the board is rethinking its decision, sparking a debate that is drawing national—and unwelcome—publicity.”
As the debate in West Chester smoldered on, I thought of how Bayard would have enjoyed this ironic postlude to the time when, growing up in that segregated city, he decided to dine in a Jim Crow restaurant.
“There was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion,” he recalled during the P.O.V. television documentary on his life, “on which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood! I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out because they took up a collection.”
In West Chester, Pennsylvania, now, the $67 million Bayard Rustin High School will open in 2005, after the school board voted 6 to 3 to overcome the opposition of hundreds of resident petition signers. Explaining the decision, school board president Rogers Vaughn said:
“The contributions that Mr. Rustin made [aren’t] just to civil rights but to the whole United States.”
The vote came after a report by a committee of teachers, students, administrators, school board members, and community leaders who had met privately with historians, and with people who had known and worked with Bayard during his years of nonviolently creating consternation. Said the committee: “We have not seen, read, or heard anything that would give us reason to change our recommendation for the name of the new high school. The more we learned, the more we were convinced that Rustin is the right name.”
And National Urban League president Hugh Price told Education Week: “His hometown should not only name a school after him, but they probably ought to have a [high school social studies] course built around his life.”
Now, that’s an idea for New York City’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein, to pursue—if he dares.