Born in Pennsylvania in 1912, Bayard Rustin’s lifelong commitment to nonviolence and equality was grounded in the Quaker upbringing from his grandparents. Through his grandmother’s involvement in the early civil rights movement, Rustin met leaders such as William DuBois.
In New York in the 1930s, he joined pacifist groups such as the Fellowship for Reconciliation and in 1937 had nonviolent activist training with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
During World War II, he served two years in prison as a conscientious objector. He was arrested again in 1947 under racial segregation laws in an early action that inspired the 1960s ‘Freedom Rides’. This was several years before Rosa Parks’ similar protest.
He travelled to India in the 1940s to study Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, later educating Martin Luther King in Gandhian practice.
In 1953, Bayard Rustin was arrested for homosexual activity, still illegal at the time in the USA. His sexuality became a divisive issue in the American civil rights movement and he was asked to resign from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Bayard Rustin was a special assistant to Martin Luther King and became known as ‘Mr. March-on-Washington’ for being the main organiser of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in which more than 200,000 protesters walked to the capital. This was the scene of King’s most famous speech, “I have a dream”.
He worked for economic justice for all, encouraging the unionisation of black Americans, and served as national chairman of the Social Democrats USA party throughout the 1970s. He died after taking ill on an aid mission to Haiti.
In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the highest award in American civil life.