Civil Rights Courage History Personal

Bayard Rustin: A Remembrance

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My youngest grandson is in second grade. His class was studying Black History, and each student was asked to make a project. He chose to create a poster about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. I was thrilled to see his finished project, because it was not only well done, but because I knew Bayard Rustin and I started thinking about him. He was a good friend of my then-husband and me.

We got to know him in the mid-1960s. He was the bravest man I ever met. He was arrested many times for his pacifism and his civil rights activities. He was beaten many times by counter-demonstrators. He dedicated his life to standing up for others. He served prison time as a conscientious objector during World War II because he refused to fight. He told us that he realized later that he was wrong because he did not know then what a monster Hitler was.

He was very close to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was the chief organizer for the March on Washington in 1963. Bayard was a strategist and a thinker, in addition to being a fearless activist. He was a brilliant speaker and writer.

Soon after we became friendly with him, in the late 1960s, he asked if he could give a concert in our new apartment on Park Avenue and 85th Street in Manhattan as a fundraiser for the Young People Socialists League. We did not yet have any furniture other than beds and a few chairs, so we said of course. Bayard gave an a cappella concert for about 50 members of YPSL. At the time, I thought to myself that the building had never before had so many black people and Socialists at one time in its history (or probably ever). I learned that night that years earlier, Bayard used to sing with Leadbelly.

I recall a speech that Bayard gave about the Kerner Commission report when it came out. He was a great proponent of creating economic opportunity (jobs with good wages) for blacks. He proposed a Marshall Plan for economic development of black Americans so that everyone would have a decent standard of living. He said that we could expend all our energies on things that didn’t make a difference, or actually fund the changes that would make a huge difference. We didn’t.

While the Vietnam War (which he opposed) was still raging, many Vietnamese people fled to Thailand and were living in refugee camps. Bayard organized a planeload of aid, delivered by himself and other civil rights leaders, to fly to the camps. He invited my 15-year-old son to join them. I was a nervous mother and did not want to put his life in danger and I didn’t let him go. I have since regretted that caution, but knowing how fiercely protective I was of my children, I would probably say no again.

Bayard was deeply devoted to the labor movement. He helped to found the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which worked closely with the labor movement to advance civil rights and equal treatment of black and white workers. Bayard knew that the labor movement was vital to the struggle for equality because black workers who unionized were assured good wages, healthcare, and a pension, and had a voice in working conditions. He always referred to his mentor as “Mr. Randolph.”

One of my favorite Bayard stories occurred in Miami (we heard about it later). He was there at a meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council. He went to a nightclub to see Marlene Dietrich perform. He sat at a table in front of the stage. He later described her as “luminous,” wearing a shimmering silver gown. When she finished, he jumped to his feet, and tossed a bouquet of flowers at her feet. He said later, “I love that woman. She told Hitler to go f— himself!”

Bayard was gay and he was not closeted. He dressed elegantly. He wore several exotic rings. We had dinner at his apartment in a union-built cooperative (Penn Station South), and the walls were covered with beautiful pieces of African art that he had collected in his travels. We met his partner, Walter, who adored him.

There is no one quite like Bayard Rustin on the scene today. No one with his courage, his independent intellect and his fierce devotion to equality and principle. I miss him.

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