History's People: Remembering Bayard Rustin

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
February 23, 2012

As we celebrate Black History Month, a number of  well-known Civil Rights figures typically come to mind - Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and many others.  Although they deserve their acclaim, February 2012 is the perfect time to reflect on Bayard Rustin, Chester County's own Civil Rights hero, during the centennial of his birth.

Known as the "Architect of the March on Washington," Bayard Rustin was a major force in  the Civil Rights movement. Not only was he was born and raised in West Chester, but his experiences here deeply influenced his philosophies and career.  

Born 100 years ago to Florence Rustin and Archie Hopkins,  he had little or no relationship with either.  Instead, Bayard was raised by his grandparents, Julia and Janifer Rustin, as their own son.  

Julia and Janifer Rustin were very active in the community. They helped found the Chester County branch of the NAACP and the West Chester Community Center (now the Charles A. Melton Arts and Education Center).  They were actively involved in the Bethel A. M. E. Church, the Gay Street School, and other organizations. Rustin's grandparents’ local activism, coupled with their strong Quaker beliefs, had a strong influence on his desire to work for social justice throughout his life.

The West Chester of Rustin's childhood was socially complex. Despite Chester County's history of the Underground Railroad and abolitionism, it was deeply divided over issues of race. West Chester's elementary and junior high schools were segregated, white restaurants would not serve black patrons, and theaters were segregated.  Local branches of the Ku Klux Klan were active in the county. 

Rustin, however, did not accept the status quo. As a high school student he protested against segregation at the Warner Theater on High Street.  He and his black and white track teammates fought against unequal housing while travelling to competitions.  He attracted like-minded students who followed him in protest  against discrimination and segregation at local restaurants, soda fountains, department stores, and the YMCA. 

Rustin was a star student at West Chester High School (now Henderson), where he played football and track, participated in French, classics, and science clubs, and excelled in speaking and essay contests. Rustin delivered a commencement address for his class of 1932 and was an amazing singer. Being comfortable in the spotlight was a natural role for Rustin, and his commanding presence and oratorical skills continued throughout his lifetime.

Rustin's songbird-like tenor voice won him a scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio, the nation's oldest historically black private university. He later attended Cheyney University where he formally declared himself a Quaker and became involved in the American Friends Service Committee. 

In 1937, at age 25, he moved to New York City and by 1941 was working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Rustin felt at home in the interfaith organization, which was led by the well-known pacifist and social justice activist A.J. Muste.  As Youth Secretary of FOR, Rustin travelled the country promoting non-violent activism in support of social justice. During this period he also joined the Young Communist League, but left the group when it shifted its focus from social inequality.

Rustin wasn't just teaching principles, he acted on his beliefs. In 1942 he was beaten by police officers in Nashville, Tennessee after refusing to sit in the back of a bus.  During the WW II draft, he refused to serve and went to prison to make a statement in support of pacifism.

In 1947, Rustin helped coordinate the "Journey of Reconciliation," the nation’s first Freedom Ride.  In this well-organized protest, sixteen black and white individuals rode busses through the South refusing to sit in segregated seating. Rustin and others were arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to a chain gang.  He wrote about his experiences for the New York Post, which helped expose the injustices of chain gangs.

Through the 1950s, Rustin’s work bolstered the rising Civil Rights movement. He helped organize the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts to end segregated seating.  In 1957, he established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In fact, many credit him with teaching Dr. King the Gandhian non-violence methods that became King's trademark.

What Rustin is most remembered for, however, is his role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Rustin's responsibility was to coordinate and oversee logistics for this massive event - from the speeches, security, and slogans to tracking busses and procuring 80,000 ham and cheese sandwiches for the crowds.  Around 250,000 people packed the Washington D.C. mall for the March, which was punctuated by Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The March was considered an enormous success and a week later, Rustin's image graced the cover of Life magazine.

Through the 1960s, Rustin remained active through the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which focused on interconnected labor and civil rights issues. He traveled the world, visiting various countries to expose injustices and support peaceful protest. But even after all of his international success, Rustin remembered his roots. In 1965, he spoke at the West Chester Community Center to 750 citizens concerned about unequal treatment for African American students in the school system. He returned in 1966 to help organize fair housing protests in West Chester.

Controversy followed Rustin throughout his career. As a gay man, he was often stigmatized within the Civil Rights movement and discouraged from taking a more public role.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advisors, for instance, warned King that he should distance himself from Rustin.  Others criticized him for his brief membership as part of the Young Communist Party and unwillingness to serve in the military. Many in the area recall how these factors fueled the 2003 controversy over naming West Chester Area School District's third high school after Rustin.

Today, in 2012, the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) commemorates the centennial of Rustin's birth and his legacy through the exhibition Bayard Rustin's Local Roots.  Former CCHS Collections Manager Andrea Cakars curated the exhibition in collaboration with many community members and representatives from the Melton Center.  Visitors will learn about Rustin's story, view numerous photographs and artifacts, and even hear recordings of him singing spirituals. The lessons are powerful - that West Chester's own Rustin, virtually unknown to many today, played a major part in the Civil Rights movement. Additionally, visitors learn that segregation in West Chester was a stark reality in the not-so-distant past, and many still living helped topple it.  

Caption (below): Bayard Rustin speaking at a 1966 Fair Housing Demonstration on the Chester County Courthouse steps. Courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society.