Historical Markers
Bayard Rustin Historical Marker
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Bayard Rustin

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Lincoln and Montgomery Avenues, West Chester

Dedication Date:
February 16, 1995

Behind the Marker

Mug Shot
Bayard Rustin, Bureau of Prisons mug shot, February 1944.
"That which is past and gone is irrevocable: Wise men have enough to do with things present and to come." Surely Bayard Rustin saw this quote from British essayist and philosopher Francis Bacon at the entrance to the chapel in the Northeast Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Rustin arrived at the twelve-year-old prison in August 1945. World War II was over, but the renowned pacifist was still in jail, in month seventeen of his imprisonment for violating the Selective Service Act.

Born an illegitimate child in West Chester in 1912, Bayard Rustin was raised by his grandparents. Blessed with many talents, he excelled in sports, was an excellent singer, became valedictorian in his high school class, and would later prove to be a spellbinding speaker. Although raised at the African Methodist Episcopal Church of his grandfather, Janifer Rustin, Bayard was also influenced by the Quaker ideology of his grandmother, Julia. Rustin officially converted to the Quaker faith in 1936, but his ideas regarding pacifism diverged a great deal from the traditional Quaker practice of passive rejection of violence.

Bayard Rustin, with other marchers, wearing a sign that reads Free Imprisoned War Objectors
Bayard Rustin demonstrating in Washington D.C. for the release from prison of...
As the Great Depression dragged on, Rustin joined the swelling number of students, mine workers, sharecroppers, and other Americans who hoped that Communism would solve the underlying structural causes of the Great Depression and end racism. While attending the City College of New York, Rustin, in the late 1930s, joined the Young Communist League, for whom he led efforts to integrate the U.S. military. In September 1940, Congress passed the Selective Service Act and instituted the first peacetime draft in American history. Later that year, a draft board in Harlem granted Rustin exemption as a conscientious objector, as a result of his Quaker affiliation.

By 1940, American industries were flooded with orders as President Roosevelt prepared the nation for war. To protest the continued job discrimination against African Americans, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened to organize a national march of 10,000 African Americans on Washington, D.C., to take place on July 4, 1941.

Disillusioned when he discovered that the Soviet Union's interest in the fate of America's black masses was in service of its own global objectives, Rustin quit the American Communist Party in the spring of 1941, and joined the planning committee for Randolph's planned march. To prevent the march, and the negative attention it would have drawn both at home and abroad, President Roosevelt in late June issued Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination based on "race, creed, color, or national origin" in all plants with defense contracts. When a placated Randolph dissolved his plans for the march, Rustin was outraged.

Mug shot
Mug shots of antiwar activist David Dellinger after his arrest for failing to...
Rustin then joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith peace and justice organization born at the outset of the First World War. Under the leadership of cleric A. J. Muste–the man that Time magazine labeled "No. 1 U.S. pacifist"–the FOR worked for a pacifist revolution in which love, fellowship, economic justice, and treating one's neighbor as oneself would outmode war. Muste and the FOR were deeply influenced by the teachings of Gandhi, teachings that would guide Rustin's career the rest of his life.

Rustin soon became the FOR's field secretary for youth and general affairs, and Muste's "hands and feet and eyes." Rustin traveled the country spreading the gospel of pacifism against the tide of rising global violence, and inflamed audiences when he urged blacks to avoid military duty. "Why fight and die abroad to squelch the doctrine of Aryan supremacy while at home we are victimized by white racism?" he argued.

In 1942, Rustin came to believe even more strongly in the Gandhian nonviolent approach after he was arrested and nearly jailed for refusing to move to the back of the bus while marker traveling in Tennessee. His growing visibility and public calls for African Americans to use nonviolent direct action marker "for the righting of injustice" soon drew him unwanted attention. Selective Service offered conscientious objectors two options: They could enlist as noncombatants, or labor in civilian work camps administered by the markerCivilian Public Service to free up manpower for military action.

As a Quaker, Rustin might also have been able to work for the marker American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker agency that aided assisted refugees in Europe. In November 1943, however, Rustin refused to report for his physical examination for alternative service. marker "War is wrong ...," he explained in a letter to his draft board "Conscription for war is inconsistent with freedom of conscience, which is not merely the right to believe but to act on the degree of truth that one receives, to follow a vocation which is God-inspired and God-directed."

Rustin is in the middle of the crowd wearing white short-sleeved shirts and white caps. He stands behind the podium with his arms raised in the air. Columns of the Lincoln Memorial are noticeable in the background.
Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, speaks to the crowd...
On February 17, 1944, a court found Rustin guilty of resisting the draft and sentenced him to three years (most COs received one year and a day) in the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, a segregated prison in a segregated state. On one visit to white COs, Rustin was beaten by a white prisoner who only stopped when he realized that neither Rustin nor the other COs were fighting back. Rustin's protests against racial segregation, and his open homosexuality, were a source of growing tension. So in August 1945, he was transferred to the higher-security penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he served out the remainder of his time.

In Lewisburg, Rustin was kept away from the nonpacifist inmates to avoid infecting them with "liberal" ideas. "By some prison officials we were considered the worst scum of the earth," Rustin wrote after his release in June 1946, "because we had refused to fight for our country, and because we were college-educated. We used to say that the difference between us and other prisoners was the difference between fasting and starving. We were there by virtue of a commitment we had made to a moral position; and that gave us a psychological attitude the average prisoner did not have..... We had the feeling of being morally important; and that made us respond to prison conditions without fear, with considerable sensitivity to human rights... It was by going to jail that we called the people's attention to the horrors of war."
Bayard Rustin (fourth from right) stands with a group of people, some holding baggage, posing for a departure photo.
Bayard Rustin (fourth from right) with other members of the Congress for Racial...

World War II breathed new life into the struggle for African-American civil rights. Like many of his fellow pacifists and civil-rights activists, Rustin applied the political lessons he had learned during the war to that movement. In 1947 he participated in the first freedom rides in the American South, and again spent time in jail. In the 1950s, he became one of the most effective and persuasive strategists of the American Civil Rights movement.

Kept in the background because of his former membership in the Communist party and his homosexuality, Rustin advised Martin Luther King during the Montgomery bus boycotts, teaching King about Gandhian philosophy and tactics. Indeed, it was Rustin who convinced King to give up his guns and armed guards. He helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

Following King's assassination, and concerned by the movement's turn away from nonviolence, Rustin then became active in the American labor movement and the African-American struggle for equal employment opportunities. He also devoted his energies to the global struggle for human rights and the national gay-rights movement. "The barometer of where one is on human-rights questions," Rustin remarked in 1986, "is no longer the black community, it's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated."

When Rustin died August 24, 1987, in New York, he was still largely unknown to the American public. In recent years, however, he has received growing recognition as one of the great American social activists of the twentieth century.
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