Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin: Freedom Fighters and Friends


Have you ever heard of Bayard Rustin? Bayard? No. No. Have you ever heard of James Baldwin? Yes, that name sounds familiar but I couldn’t tell you anything. Have you ever heard of Bayard Rustin? No sir. Do you know who James Baldwin is? I feel like I’ve heard the name before. I feel like, I don’t know anything personally, but I know it came up in my National Gov class. What about Bayard Rustin? No. Bayard Rustin was born a freeman in Westchester, Pennsylvania on March 17 1912. He grew up with out his father in his life and his mother Florence was only 16 years old when she gave birth to him. He believed she was his sister. His quaker “values” were adapted from his grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin, which he stated in his own words, “were based on the concept of a single family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.” Twelve years later on August 2, 1924 writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin was born to Emma Berdis Jones. Baldwin did not know his biological father but was the grandson of a slave. He was raised in Harlem, New York and the eldest of nine children who grew up in poverty while also developing a troubled relationship with his tough, religious stepfather. As a child, he found a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” He was a trailblazer. He was one that really brought focus through his work, on what it meant to be black and the struggles of black people. He was very honest and it was very sincere. He didn’t mince words in his place. He was very direct. He really confronted the establishment. He challenged people that think and that’s what is work really means to a lot of people today. When you look at some of the plays that we have now, it really raised a social consciousness of America. What I can say about James Baldwin is that I think that in addition to his incredible writing abilities he became at a critical time really one of the major spokesman for the black civil rights movement in the United States. Really there was no one who would play a bigger role in my opinion, in influencing the sixties other than perhaps Doctor King himself. Both Rustin and Baldwin were born to young mothers who did not have relationships with their biological fathers. It was the influence of the elders of the family that were strong and eventually gave each man the willingness to change their circumstances. The foundation of the equality as taught to Rustin by his grandparents and the struggles Baldwin encountered with his stepfather, provided them a blueprint to build a life on their personal beliefs. Around the age of fourteen, Baldwin was spending the majority of his time in local libraries and had finally discovered his passion for writing. During this part of his life, he became a
preacher just like a stepfather. Baldwin was a preacher for three years and he didn’t realize it then, but what ultimately fueled him as a writer was dealing with his personal anguish, despair and the beauty of being a preacher. Ready to move on in the early 1940s, he would abandon his religious faith and focus fully instead on his passion for literature. Baldwin knew once he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at the age of 18 he received a job working for the New Jersey Railroad. Baldwin once wrote, “If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can’t do that, it’s time to get rid of him.” Baldwin once visited Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, when he was invited to have dinner at his home. Baldwin described Elijah Muhammad as single-minded and uncalculated in his thoughts. Elijah Muhammad believed that Baldwin had been too exposed to white teachings, never receiving true instruction. Elijah Muhammad inquired about Baldwin’s
religious beliefs, Baldwin replied, “I left the church 20 years ago and haven’t joined anything since.” Elijah asked, “And what are you now?” Baldwin explained, “I? Now? Nothing. I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.” The New Jersey Railroad job was short lived and Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village,
where he worked as a freelance writer working primarily on book reviews. While freelancing, he caught the attention of the well-known novelist, Richard Wright. Although Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright assisted him with securing a grant in which you can support himself as a writer. James Baldwin would become aware of his
homosexuality in 1948. The disgust he felt by the amount of prejudice against both blacks and homosexuals in the United States drove him to relocate to Paris in his mid-twenties where he would spend virtually the rest of his life. Teenage Rustin wrote poems and played
football for his high school and according to lore, during a staged
impromptu sit-in at a restaurant, his white teammates were served, but not
him. Around this time he explained to his grandmother that he enjoyed the company of young men rather than girls. His grandmother’s response was, “I suppose that’s what you need to do.” Mr. Rustin was openly gay, at a time in our community, where it was taboo. It was like all the way unacceptable. Rustin attended Wilberforce University
in Ohio and Cheyney State Teachers College in Pennsylvania which both are historically black schools which we now refer to as HBCU’s. In 1937 he moved to New York City and studied at City College of New York. He was briefly involved with the Young Communist League in the 1930s, before he became disillusioned with its activities and quit. The FBI would brand him as communist. Then brand him as gay. So you know that’s a hell of a branding. And as a radical, so that’s even worse. In his personal philosophy, Rustin combined the Quaker religion, the non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph. During WWII he worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-related hiring. Upset when the March on Washington was called off in 1941, Rustin met A.J. Muste, a minister and labor organizer and joined Rev. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation. When FOR members in Chicago launched the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, Rustin traveled around the nation speaking out about civil rights. Two years later, he was arrested for failure to appear before his draft board and for refusing alternative service as a diligent objector. Rustin was sentenced to three years in jail, but ended up serving only 26 months. His desegregation protests and open homosexuality forced authorities to transfer him to a higher security prison. Bayard once quoted, “Today, blacks are no longer the litmus or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are
laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays… It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. The question of social change should be formed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.” Rustin received punishments several times for his beliefs. He refused to register for the WWII drafts and was jailed for two years. He took part in the protests against the segregated public transit system in 1947, where he was arrested in North
Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for a few weeks. Chain gangs where prisoners. As a
punishment, they were chained together and forced to
do substantially challenging labor. Rustin was arrested on a morals charge for engaging in homosexual activity in public in 1943 and was jailed for 60 days. He, however, continued to live his life as an openly gay man. Organizing human rights protests began in the 1950s for Rustin. He played an important role in organizing and coordinating a march Aldermaston, England, in which 10,000 protesters demonstrated against nuclear weapons. The meeting of Rustin and the young civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also took place in the 1950’s and he began working with King as an organizer and strategist in 1955. He taught King about Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience. Rustin assisted King with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956. Baldwin wrote novels and essays. His novel, “Giovanni’s Room” received much controversy due to its depiction of homosexuality and the love relationship shared between two men. Some of his essay writings included “The Hard Kind of Courage, Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time.” Living in a different country gave Baldwin a perspective on the life he’d left behind and a sole freedom to seek and perfect his craft. In a way, Baldwin’s excursions brought him closer to the social concerns of New America. In 1957, Baldwin was overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the events and times, that he returned to the United States to participate in the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Ultimately Baldwin would become one of the most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Discrimination, be it racial or sexual would be a recurring theme in his work. More precisely, he would seek to show the isolation of blacks in society, but also the loneliness of many regardless of color, which according to him resulted from ambiguities inherent in one’s being. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle. Though at times he was judged for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained an important figure in that struggle throughout the 1960s. We had a lot of intellectual giants in those days, he obviously was one. He was part of our black intellectual elite. He very intellectually talked about the black struggles and problems. Him and a guy named A. Philip Randolph, He was head of the sleeping car porters, or whatever it was, so they were involved in that union of organizing sleeping car porters. The porters were all black on trains. They organized them and put them into a union. And he was a part of that. Brilliant man. In 1965, Rustin and his mentor Randolph co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor organization for African-American trade union members. Prior to this stage of their lives, there were many struggles of civil rights dating back from 1890 to the 1920s when lynchings were taking place most frequently in the Southern United States. Now many of the newspapers, the black newspapers, every week they reported how many blacks had been lynched. The lynchings were common. And it symbolizes what was really the worst possible behavior of that time. The treatment of people. Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites being lynched between 1882 and 1968. This is an American century. The world will belong to us. This core American fascism as Roosevelt termed them, must be laughing as labor beating out its own brains. No wonder they could pass out a few papers and the Negro people, in slavery of one kind or another. Feudal or industrial for the 300 odd years of our lives on this continent, forgetting their civil war struggle. Forgetting the lessons of reconstruction. Again betrayed by a coalition of industrial finance republican barrens and southern bond plantation owners. And their reward? Lynching. The trend six to Peoria, to Virginia, to Georgia to Alabama, to anywhere, where a black face dares to answer back. Anywhere, where a brown body dares to walk in dignity. Lynchings reinforced power reversal and were public demonstrations of white
supremacy. In the 1950s the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. Membership in the NAACP increased in states across the country. The NAACP achieved a significant US Supreme Court victory in 1954 with the ruling that segregated education was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. The Board of Education called for the desegregation of schools throughout the nation. The Little Rock school board complied with the courts and submitted a plan for gradual integration in May of the following year. The board approved. Nine black students nicknamed “Little Rock Nine” entered Little Rock Central High School in September 1957. Anywhere that young people desegregated a school, it was not an easy task. Just physically, it was not easy because you just didn’t go in. There was taunting physically and I think that was what you would call bullying. Whites were mean. The kids were mean. They’d hit you, they’d pull the girl’s hair. They’d spit on you. They’d do all these things and often times there was no recourse. My brother tells the story that ever day when they got off the bus, they were bussed from their neighborhood to the white school. They got off the bus doing this. They had to fight every day. My family moved in the early 50s to our neighborhood, which was a former Jewish community. We were the first black family. And within a year, all the white people moved out. They sold it cheap, they just left you know because they couldn’t conceive of living next door to a black person. Ok. So that was my upbringing. What I saw as well during that period, or a little earlier I should say, elementary schooler Emmett Till was killed. And I felt in danger, as a young child. A 1955 lynching that sparked public outrage about injustice was that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from
Chicago. I remember personally being extremely upset and shocked about it. Looking back I’d say that it’s something akin to the way I felt about the Trayvon Martin incident with Zimmerman. Spending the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi, Till was killed for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman. Till had been badly beaten, one of his eyes gouged out and he was shot in the head before being thrown into the Tallahatchie River, his body weighed down with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His mother insisted on a public funeral with an open casket, to show people how badly Till’s body had been disfigured. News photographs circulated around the country, and drew intense public reaction. People in the nation were horrified that a boy could have been killed for such an incident. The state of Mississippi tried two defendants, but they were speedily acquitted. I had seen first hand, how blacks were treated and the really, very disgusting reactions of of white men. In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement attracted students to the South from all over the country to work on voter registration and other issues. The intervention of people from outside the communities and thread of social change aroused fear and resentment among whites. During this period, blacks faced legal discrimination from both businesses and government. Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from being serviced or from even entering certain businesses. Protests in several states were organized over the years, some became violent at the refusal to disperse by the demand of white authorities. On June 11, 1963 President John F. Kennedy announced his plan to push for civil rights legislation Later that evening, Medgar Evers, the popular civil rights activists from Mississippi was murdered. Rustin was a key figure in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King delivered his legendary, “I Have a Dream” speech. Bayard Rustin, his contribution at the moment of that March is inestimable. He got it together. He was the actual brain behind the movement. Nearly 200,000 people flooded the city for one of the largest demonstrations for human rights. All representatives of society were there at that March. Church, state, labor union, political advocacy The whole… we discovered the term “grass roots.” Grass roots means cultural. The whole cultural volume of us. Jobs is a big thing, same as it is now. So naturally everybody supporting to get jobs, you know. Shoot, everybody need a job whether you are a nationalist, or whether you integrations, or whether you was just a dumb guy. You know, you were smart enough to know jobs. Marchers linked arms as they marched down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial. Speakers at the March included Bayard Rustin, Daisy Bates, John Lewis, Walter Ruether, Floyd McKissick, Joachim Prinz, Whitney Young, Josephine Baker, Roy Wilkins and A. Philliph Randolph. Notable attendees included James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Jackie Robinson, Sidney Portier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Bill Russell, Sammy Davis Jr, Bob Dylan, Ossie Davis, Marion Anderson, Joan Baez and many more. Integration had begun to take place, but not everyone was pleased. In Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, an explosion erupted at the 16th Street Baptist Church killing four young girls; Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. The bombing was in active white supremacy aimed at putting a stop to the progress
I’ve integration in public places. This incident marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and prompted the push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “…maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic first amendment privileges because they have committed themselves to that, over there. But somewhere I read, of the freedom of
assembly. Somewhere I read, of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” Three years later, the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination shocked the nation on April 4, 1968. “We aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy informed a crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana of his death during the campaign tour. Many of which had not heard about his passing. “I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have,
some very sad news for all of you and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.” Angered at the news of the assassination of King, riots broke out in cities across the country; Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The White House ordered over 13,000 troops to guard the White House and gain control of the crowds. Rioting went on for days, evidence of the rebellions remained on some city blocks for decades. April 9th 1968, King’s funeral service was followed by a three mile procession from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Saddened by the assassination of his friend Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin returned to St. Paul – de- Vence, France. There he worked on a book about the adversity of the times. Many responded to the harsh tone of the book with accusations of bitterness but, even though Baldwin had captured much of the anger of the times in his book, he continued and always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. Rustin received numerous awards and honorary degrees throughout his career including the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, from President Barack Obama. His writings about civil rights were published in the collection “Down the Line” in 1971 and in “Strategies for Freedom” in 1976. He continued to speak out about the importance of economic equality within the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the need for social rights for gays and lesbians. Bayard Rustin died of a ruptured appendix in New York City on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75. Bayard Rustin was the focus of two films, one a biographical feature titled “Out of the Past,” and the other a documentary: “Brother Outsider.” Rustin once wrote “The principal factors which influenced my life are nonviolent tactics, constitutional means, democratic procedures, respect for human personality and the belief that all people are one. James Baldwin would be internationally-recognized on numerous occasions during both his lifetime and after his untimely death. Barack called James Baldwin, “God’s revolutionary mouth.” James Baldwin, man, we were so proud of him. He stood up for his people. They’re just delicious and if you engage them and read them, you
have enough food to feed your soul, your spirit, you know? Baldwin would succumb to stomach cancer exactly four months and 23 days after Rustin at the age of 63 on December 1st 1987 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in southeastern France. He is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, not far from New York City where many other artists and prominent figures have been laid to rest. Baldwin’s life and legacy has influenced countless writers and friends. In 2004 the United States Postal Service created a first class stamp in his honor. He was inducted into the New York writers Hall of Fame and named one of the top 100 greatest writers. His influence reach the likes of famed poet and friend Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Josephine Baker, Amiri Baraka, Alex Haley, Dolores Kendrick, Langston Hughes and Lena Horne. Toni Morrison’s New York Times eulogy entitled “Life in His Language” reads “You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wilderness for me? How strengthened I was by certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. Our crown, you said, has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do, you said, is wear it.” I can tell you that I stand on the shoulders of many people who came before me, because I came after segregation and I was afforded the benefits, of what the people before me in Civil Rights and what they marched for, what they struggled for. The signs were down, I didn’t have to bus to a school. I could go to my neighborhood school. You know, all those things were afforded me an opportunity as an African-American male growing up in DC. You know, I am a native Washingtonian and proud of it. So people like you I stand on your shoulders. But, I think that it’s people like you who can take this and tell the story and each other’s story. Right. But I also think it’s people like you, who also know that the journey isn’t over.

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