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Bayard Rustin might be best known for his close association with Martin Luther King Jr. and for his part in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He was a major figure in the American pacifist movement and both a theorist and practitioner of nonviolence. He was at various times a Community, an anti-Communist Socialist and a well-connected activist within the Democratic Party. He was a champion of the American labor movement and a well-traveled advocate of human rights. He was a talented musician with a powerful tenor voice. He was an avid collector of art and antiques. He was a self-educated scholar of philosophy and political theory. He was a black American. And he was a gay man.

Rustin was born in 1912 into a middle-class black family in West Chester, Pa. Raised by his grandparents -- and under the false assumption that a woman he thought to be his older sister was really his true mother -- the Rustins were Quakers, and Bayard grew up in and absorbed the political ethos of his family's faith. He attended two colleges for a year each and, despite real academic ability, left both under mysterious circumstances. While taking courses a City College in the late 1930's, he became active in its Young Community League, where he stood out as the only black person. Rustin was interested in the league mainly because of its commitment to the racial struggles in the South.

In 1941, when Moscow ordered the American Communist Party to abandon its civil rights commitments and focus on World War II, he left the organization. He then became aligned with two great anti-Communist Socialists of the 1940's and 50's: A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a preeminent black leader; and A.J. Muste, a leading pacifist and the head of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

He joined Martin Luther King Jr. in organizing the bus boycott that established King as a national figure. And for the next 10 years, he moved back and forth between the world of the civil rights movement and the world of peace activism, both movements then committed to the Gandhian ideas of nonviolence to which Rustin subscribed. Rustin worked closely with King and the movement for nearly a decade and was particularly important in helping Randolph plan the 1963 March on Washington. But his youthful ties to the Communist Party, a wartime imprisonment, and an arrest in California on public morals charges forced Rustin to limit his public exposure to avoid King and others whom Southern white leaders (and the FBI) were attempting to destroy.

 

Source: The New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1997 pg. 13