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On today’s show, we bring you a special encore episode from our archives to honor Black history and heritage. We take a look at the life and legacy of Bayard Rustin, one of the most central figures in the African American struggle for civil rights and freedom. He was known as the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and trusted advisor to labor leader A. Phillip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin’s methodology for challenging racial inequality and imperialism centered on his ability to interrelate race, class, gender, and sexuality. “Angelic Troublemaker: Bayard Rustin” combines film excerpts, insightful interviews and speeches from this important figure of the civil rights movement. This program first aired on Making Contact in 2021.
Special Thank You to Nancy Kates, Bennett Singer, and Sam Pollar the producers of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. And to the Pacifica Radio Archives for use of archival materials.
Image Credit: Library of Congress: https://lccn.loc.gov/97518846
Image Caption: Bayard Rustin, half-length portrait, facing front, microphones in foreground
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Featuring Credits: Making Contact Staff:
Making Contact Staff:
Cory Gray – Medieval Tension 30
Ketsa – This Way Joyous Ketsa
Blue Dot Sessions – Rally Rayling
Dee Yan-Key – “Hold On”- Go Down Moses
Blue Dot Sessions – 3rd Chair
Andy G. Cohen – Our Young Guts Prisma
Bayard Rustin: We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers who really will disrupt. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. [applause] Not with any weapons because that is not our weapon. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so things, wheels don’t turn. [applause]
Anita Johnson: That’s Bayard Rustin speaking in New York City in 1963 – Black, gay and one of the most central figures in the African American struggle for civil rights and freedom.
Ashon Crawley: I think that what Bayard Rustin actually represents is an ongoing tension and problem within Black social life, which is also the problem of America, which is that the very ones are helpful towards so architectural and structural ends in terms of imagining different kinds of futures are also people who are often marginalized from the very things that they have helped to construct.
Anita Johnson: Bayard Rustin, the pioneering civil rights activist, dedicated his life to racial equality, economic justice and ending warfare. I’m Anita Johnson, and on today’s episode of Making Contact, we bring you, “Angelic Troublemaker: Bayard Rustin.”
Music: “We Shall Overcome”
Anita Johnson: The March on Washington was one of the biggest demonstrations for freedom the nation had ever seen. Nearly a quarter million people gathered on the national mall to demand civil and voting rights legislation, more jobs and a minimum wage increase.
Rustin was a logistical genius and served as the mastermind behind the March on Washington. He organized the complex planning of transportation, outreach, food, child care, and speakers. He was the top lieutenant to labor leader A. Phillip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fifty-three years since the March on Washington, his political and social contributions to the Civil Rights Movement are still relatively unknown mainly because he was relegated to the background.
Bayard Rustin was also gay.
Music: “Oh, love oh, love…”
Bayard Rustin: I never said to my grandmother, you know, I’m gay, but I told her that I enjoyed being with guys at the high school parties. Her reply was, I suppose that’s what you need to do. It was never an encouragement, but it was a recognition, so I never had feelings of guilt.
Anita Johnson: Bayard Taylor Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, March 17, 1912, raised by his grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin, a Quaker. According to Jervis Anderson, author of the book, Bayard Rustin: The Trouble I’ve Seen, the organizer described his Quaker values by saying in his own words, that they “were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”
Rustin, known as a “master strategist of social change,” began his organizing work well before the 1963 March. According to the film, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, his community organizing efforts began when he was a child.
Brother Outsider was one of the first films to bring attention to Rustin’s role in achieving significant wins in the Civil Rights era. Today on the show, we’ll hear some audio from the film, Brother Outsider, along with interviews from scholars discussing Rustin and original audio of the man himself, Bayard Rustin.
But first, let’s listen to clips from the film, Brother Outsider, produced by filmmaker Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer.
V/O of Bayard Rustin’s words: At City College, I ran into a number of young radical whites and blacks who were members of the Communist League, and I joined the league as an organizer. I pretty much come to feel that if Blacks were going to get anywhere, we had to associate with something more radical than the Democratic Party.
V/O reading FBI field report: According to a confidential source, Bayard Rustin colored warned that unless the Negro problem is intelligently handled, there will shortly be a revolution. By his own admission, Rustin joined the Young Communist League in 1938 but withdrew in 1941. It is recommended that surveillance of Rustin continue.
V/O of Bayard Rustin’s words: When war broke out in Europe, the Communists abruptly abandoned their concern for the Black masses. And disillusioned, I left the Communist League and went to work with AJ Muste at the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Speaker 1: Bayard and I, both of us could have been called Musty boys. AJ Musty, who was known as the number one pacifist in the United States, was a great influence on both of us.
V/O of Bayard Rustin’s words: When I met AJ Muste in 1940, I was deeply impressed. He wasn’t at all the fuzzy liberal pacifist type I’d expected. Musty didn’t believe that lobbying and writing letters can be effective just by themselves. You have to act and act with your body.
AJ Musty: Peace is the way. Peace is not a distant goal which we reach by the road of war or preparation for war. Peace is what you begin with, and if you don’t begin with it, you won’t end with it. Violence cannot do away with violence.
Speaker 2: Here was this unusual personage with ideas that resonated with Bayard’s own inner feelings. And it had to be something of a father-son relationship because Bayard never knew his father.
Speaker 3: Bayard was taken on the staff by AJ Muste as a field worker, and his assignment was to travel around the country on behalf of the message of love and nonviolence as a way to resist evil.
Speaker 1: Our position was that racial injustice is violence and one should attack it wherever it exists.
Archival tape: They want to throw white children and colored children into the melting pot, so out of which will come a conglomerated mongrel class of people. Both races will be destroyed in such a move.
Speaker 4: I remember one incident which took place in the early 40s when Bayard was traveling in Tennessee. Bayard sat towards the front of the bus. The bus driver told him to move. And he said, I cannot move. The police came and they started dragging Bayard out of his seat. And he pointed to a little white child across the aisle saying, if I move, this child will not know that injustice is taking place here.
V/O of Bayard Rustin’s words: I forced myself to be still and wait for their kicks. One after the other. And then I stood up and said, there’s no need to beat me. I am not resisting you.
Speaker 5: The man had no fear. We were going through the anxiety of fear and he and he just flowed through whatever he was doing and putting his life on the line for other people. He did the best thing before Rosa Parks.
Bayard Rustin: There are three ways to deal with injustice. One is to accept it slavishly. Or one can resist it with arms. Or one can use nonviolence. The man who believes in nonviolence is prepared to be harmed, to be crushed. But he will never crush others.
Anita Johnson: That was Rustin speaking from the 2003 film, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. Throughout his life he was at the forefront of organizing circles pushing for change, whether it was his work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation or the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization he co-founded and would later be noted for pioneering the use of nonviolent direct action in America’s civil rights struggle.
During World War II he spent more than two years in prison as a conscientious objector. In 1947, Rustin was arrested with other participants of CORE’s Journey of Reconciliation, a test of the Supreme Court rulings banning discrimination in interstate travel, which would later exist as a model for the Freedom Rides of 1961.
After many years of studying Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence. Rustin traveled to India with the intention of deepening his understanding of nonviolent resistance. Devi Prasad, pacifist.
Devi Prasad: Bayard came to India in 1948 to attend the First World Pacifist Conference. Unfortunately, Gandhi had already been assassinated, but Bayard met almost everybody. He talked about the work in the United States about nonviolence. He said, we are not there to avoid conflicts. We have to turn conflicts into creative conflicts. And that has remained in my mind throughout.
Ashon Crawley: He’s trying to use his particular place in America to think about the global situation. And so when thinking with Gandhi, he’s trying to think about how is what Gandhi is doing in India in relation to what we could be doing in the Americas.
Anita Johnson: Ashon Crawley, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.
Ashon Crawley: This does not for some people, they want to forgive Gandhi’s sort of racism, for example. He’s not willing to forgive that racism. He’s he’s trying to figure out, is there a way that the struggles that they are engaging in this other part of the world related to the struggles that’s happening, quote unquote, at home? And so his ability to recognize that deep relationship means that he’s using his particular occasion to think about global problems and that the global problem is never a problem that is disconnected from the local, but that local problems become inflections through which the global situation is actually itself produced.
Anita Johnson: Rustin’s extensive knowledge of organizing and civil disobedience earned him an invite from Rev. King to serve as his advisor during the Montgomery bus boycott. Rustin provided King with a deep understanding of nonviolent ideas and tactics at a time when Dr. King had more of a theoretical understanding of nonviolence.
Nancy Kates, the producer of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.
Nancy Kates: You know, King had a deep belief in, you know, the transformative power of protest. He got some of the ideas about how to do that from Rustin because Rustin had been doing it for many years, had gone to India. I think when Dr. King when the Montgomery bus boycott started, and he had people guarding his house with guns. And Rustin said, you got to get rid of these guys. And, you know, King was like, I don’t want my family to be hurt. And Rustin was like, if you want to be nonviolent, you’ve got to be nonviolent, you know, which is an incredibly powerful thing. And, you know, when you spend a lot of time studying someone like Rustin, you realize that if Dr. King hadn’t existed, we would probably revere Bayard Rustin in similar ways. But he also knew that he couldn’t be that person, that figurehead, because he was gay.
Anita Johnson: Rustin publicly came out in the 1980’s as gay, although it was well known throughout his life that he was gay. Many credit this as the reason he was relegated to the background. There was concern his involvement could be weaponized against Dr. King and the movement. An antiquated concept of the past that still has its roots in the political organizing structure of today, believes Ashon Crawley.
Ashon Crawley: What Bayard Rustin is encountering in terms of people having a problem with his queerness is not dissimilar from what folks in Black Lives Matter and other organizations, too, are encountering in terms of queerness in the twenty twenties because we are living this long historical moment, homophobia, queer antagonism, transphobia is still deeply entrenched in various communities of which we are a part, that there are still religious communities that are very, very antagonistic to queer livability, that there are non-theist communities or communities that aren’t organized around God concepts who also have real problems with queer relationality and possibility. And so because we are living in a long historical moment in terms of how we organize people and ideas and knowledge itself. We have not escaped that moment. It is axiomatic or it makes sense.
Anita Johnson: Crawley says there are similarities to the resistance queer Black Lives Matter organizers are experiencing.
Ashon Crawley: Because there is this still this deep, compulsory, heterosexist sort of grounding through which we think about our relationships to one another and through and through which we think about our relation to civil rights struggle. And until we interrogate that epistemological order, we will continue to reproduce the inequity that someone like Rustin is trying to fight against.
Anita Johnson: Rustin’s methodology for challenging racial inequality and empire centered on his ability to interrelate race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Ashon Crawley: The genius of Rustin is in his ability to recognize connections, his ability to recognize the need for connection, the need for being in relation as the thing that would get us closer towards something like freedom, because in the practice of connection is itself freedom.
Anita Johnson: Labor leader A. Philip Randolph recognized Rustin’s genius and called on him to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Archival tape from the March on Washington: I now bring to you the executive director of the March on Washington, the man who organized this whole thing, Mr. Bayard Rustin. [applause’ Ladies and gentlemen, the first demand is that we have effective civil rights legislation, no compromise, no filibuster, and that it includes public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FAPC, and the right to vote. What do you say? [applause]
Anita Johnson: You’re listening to Angelic Troublemaker: Bayard Rustin on Making Contact. We want to hear your thoughts about this week’s episode. Tweet us at @Making_Contact or message us on Instagram at makingcontactradioproject – all one word. You can also write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Song: “Walk with Me”
Anita Johnson: On September 25, 1963, Bayard spoke at a community church in New York city. This talk came a month after the March on Washington and 10 days after the KKK bombed a church and killed four Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama.
The talk he gave titled, “After the March, What?” looked at the purpose of the March on Washington, nonviolent mass action, and the idea of freedom for Black Americans.
Bayard Rustin: For a while, I believe that there must be an emotional surge to this movement. It must be tempered by a realization of what we are up against and what we have to do to get freedom now. It is the simplest thing for great hordes of people to scream out in auditoria every time someone says freedom now. It is a far different thing to know how to get it and to know how one is related to a concrete program for its realization.
The March on Washington on the 28th of August came at a most propitious time and did certain things which it was calculated to do. Not merely to make Negroes feel good or to show that when we are dressed up [laughter], we can behave ourselves or to indicate that we could come to Washington without bringing that thing with us. It was fundamentally that Mr. Randolph and others had analyzed that the truth, that there was going to be a violent, miserable summer before us, given the economic condition of the Negro, was correct. And the first thing we wanted was something at the end of August, which Negroes in June and July and all of August could become so deeply involved in. That’s the frustration which they naturally felt in this period could be creatively used and there was no rioting in the industrial centers, which had been predicted and was on its way.
Number two, when the civil rights movement began to go deep into the real problems. The segregated restaurants and hotels have never been the real problem. Not fundamental economic problems, but the problem of dignity. Therefore, in the early aspects of the revolution, theaters, hotels and restaurants were important. But once the economic problem of the Negro was revealed to the Negro himself and the problem went down to touch profound economic problems such as where do Negroes get jobs now?
When you touch the problem of the home and the job, the revolution becomes deeper. Now therefore, we recognize that it was absolutely impossible, my friends, for the Negro struggle nonviolently to proceed further in any real way, unless we could now get and increasingly get into the streets hundreds of thousands of white people who are now prepared to go to jail. Just economically, it is obvious that no minority representing one tenth of the people can use the elements that it can suck up from itself merely to affect the behavior of the majority. They cannot create that much dislocation alone.
Psychologically, it is also clear that great masses of white people in this country, including people in this room when the time comes, look upon “law and order” in quotes as being superior to justice. And they will argue now, well, it was all right when it was just a freedom ride here or a bus ride there. But when they begin to disrupt everything, maybe they’ve gone too far. Maybe now we need law and order, which means let the Negro accept his inferior status for a few years more. This he will not do.
And therefore, in order to keep the law and order argument truly the argument of justice and injustice, it must not now be Negroes alone going the factory gates, tying themselves on machinery, giving the impression that here are Black people disrupting things, trying to get jobs for Negroes, take jobs away from white people. It was that we must now get thousands of white people in the streets to stand with these Negroes who must do these desperate things so that it is clear that there are interracial groups who are just fighting against whatever injustice that exists over there. That is a reason we must have thousands of white people in the street. This is what makes a Black nationalist and the Malcolm X analysis totally ridiculous.
Now, the March on Washington achieved that symbolically. Furthermore, the March on Washington meant something which we were irresponsible about. Any time you got a quarter of a million Negroes in the street harbinger of a new revolutionary drive, we should have known there would be bombings in Birmingham, that there will be even more because in the revolutionary situation, there is action and counter action. Always. We were not prepared for when that bombing came, which we should have anticipated in order that we could have had a program to address ourselves to about it. Now, my friends, I want to say a few words now about violence.
Dr. Martin Luther King, my friend, called for troops. I talked with Martin two hours last night and he no longer calls for troops, not because I convinced him, because he had changed his mind by the time the discussion began. But I want to look at what troops in Birmingham would mean. We cannot now be sloppy in our analysis. Troops brought into almost any situation answers the least important part of the question we are asking. What we want is that situation, which both gives Negroes protection and makes progress toward integration possible. I will admit that if enough troops could be sent in, you may deal with whether Negroes can be brutalized in part. But the minute you bring them in, what you have automatically done is to expect those troops to defend the only thing they can defend, which is the perpetuation of the status quo as it is. [applause]
Anita Johnson: There’s still relevance in Rustin’s analysis of a rainbow coalition and philosophy of nonviolence to combat racism and injustice. The Summer Rebellions of 2020 could be viewed as a sharp example of his theory. Those protests, mostly peaceful, saw people coming together from various walks of life with the intention of voicing outrage over the murder of George Floyd.
Clip of protest sounds
Twenty-six years after his death, President Barack Obama honored Bayard Rustin with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Pres. Barack Obama: The day of the March on Washington, the National Mall was far from full and some in the press were beginning to wonder if the event would be a failure. But the march’s chief organizer, Bayard Rustin, didn’t panic. As the story goes, he looked down at a piece of paper, looked back up and reassured reporters that everything was right on schedule. The only thing those reporters didn’t know was the paper he was holding was blank. He didn’t know how it was going to work out. But Bayard had an unshakable optimism, nerves of steel, and most importantly, a faith that if the cause is just and people are organized, nothing can stand in our way. For decades, this great leader often at Dr. King’s side was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that. But today we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.
Music: “Walk with Me”
Anita Johnson: Throughout Rustin’s life, he was selfless as it pertained to the struggle for equal rights for all people, lending his voice and energy to the advocacy of social justice causes and human rights issues worldwide.
Bayard Rustin famously once said “that in every community we need a group of angelic troublemakers,” people willing to stand up and speak out against injustice. And he did this, till the very last breath.
For Making Contact, I’m Anita Johnson.