Remembering the Genius of Bayard Rustin

By George Lakey

Thirty-five years after his death, the man who mentored Martin Luther King Jr. still has much to teach movements about harnessing the power of ‘people in motion.’

Bayard Rustin speaking in New York City in 1965. (Wikimedia/World Telegram & Sun photo by Stanley Wolfson)

Summer is the time I most often think of the civil rights movement and how formative those “long hot summers” were for me as a young activist. It was near the close of summer in 1987 that Bayard Rustin died at 75, a man who numbered me among the many he influenced.

As a neophyte activist in the 1950s, I was urged to catch Bayard Rustin as often as I could. I did so wanting to soak up the experience of the man who mentored Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, co-organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and advised leaders of other emerging movements.

By 1963, I was leading a local movement organization and also taking grad courses in social change. Bayard and other national leaders were increasingly concerned that rapidly growing movements weren’t able to find enough skilled organizers. They envisioned creating a school for organizers and drew me into the planning process.

While the objective of our weekend retreats was to sketch out a curriculum for the school, we inevitably fell into lively debates on the urgent strategy questions of the day. Bayard had a stimulating opinion on everything, but he declared one of his principles so often I heard it in my sleep: We organizers must up our game when “people are in motion.”

The leadership group founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. School of Social Change as a graduate program of a liberal Baptist theological seminary, drafted me as one of its teachers, and had Bayard and other leaders visit as frequently as possible.

When teaching I often heard myself urging the students to pay close attention to when “the people are in motion.” I needed to. Some of our students were so caught up in theoretical debates and ethical questions they overlooked the value of observation and how an organizer effectively relates to people who are ready to take action.

After all, civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph had insisted on Rustin as the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington — despite a political vulnerability as a gay man — because of Bayard’s ability to sense what people were up for, along with his organizing genius. Bayard had already been organizing “try-outs” like the 1959 youth march on Washington for school integration that I attended along with 26,000 other students.

Rustin’s perception of polarization

Bayard reminds me of Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century Black abolitionist who emphasized the positive value of political polarization. Douglass was the only male leader to attend the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention where women declared they should be allowed to vote. He said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

In this period the U.S. is emphatically a people in motion. Progressives have been setting the agenda in the U.S. since the ‘60s. Recent examples are the Me Too, LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter and climate justice movements. And, naturally, push-back is dramatic and violent. Bayard, following Douglass, would ask why we’d expect anything else.

The difference from Douglass is that Rustin had the strategic advantage of knowing nonviolent direct action as a technique, as a social invention. He’d learned deeply from his mentor, A.J. Muste, who in turn had learned the power of this technology partly by leading labor strikes. Bayard’s own early experiments showed him that, like any technology, nonviolent direct action can be taught through training. He with others set up multi-day nonviolent training workshops, the last session of which consisted of sitting in at a segregated lunch counter. Those trainings became the seedbed for what became the famous 1960 lunch counter sit-in movement in the South.

Bayard learned that people in motion are often open to nonviolent direct action simply because it’s the more effective way to get something done. That opens them in turn to the amazing world of tactics and strategy. Being serious about winning something means going far beyond token opposition to this or that injustice via a one-off protest; they become open to waging a nonviolent direct action campaign, giving them a chance to win.

That, after all, was what Muste was doing with labor, since a strike is the usual form that a nonviolent campaign takes in industry. (A prolonged boycott may also be the leading tactic used by a union to win. Workers understand that one-off protests are almost always pointless.)

All the learning Bayard absorbed as a younger man went into his mentoring of the young leader Martin Luther King. King’s daughter Bernice A. King told me that her dad initially knew less about nonviolent action than her mom, Coretta Scott King, who had studied it seriously before meeting her dad.

When my turn came to learn from Bayard, I found myself accepting that forcing change through nonviolent struggle is often necessary and will leave many people unhappy, including some who will take it out on you violently. Expect it, prepare for it and double down on the nonviolent character of the struggle.

For example, in Montgomery, when someone connected with City Hall privately told a boycott activist that the police were about to arrest a group of the boycott leaders, the leaders came up with a brilliant tactical maneuver. Rather than wait to be arrested at their homes, they agreed to go to City Hall as a group and declare themselves ready to be arrested. They persuaded some activists not on the arrest list to go along; when the leaders were arrested the others demanded to be arrested as well and complained loudly when they weren’t!

Rustin’s historical richness

I’ve heard people who knew Bayard express admiration for his strategic and tactical creativity. I share that admiration. Reflecting on conversations I was part of that included Bayard and A.J. and labor leader Sid Lens, I was struck by their historical richness. The stories they told each other drew from Gandhi-led experiments in South Africa and India as well as workers’, farmers’ and women’s nonviolent struggles in Europe. They drew from campaigns that faced dilemmas and obstacles and often fierce opposition. Their sharing included arguments and humor, all the while enriching the strategic brew that would go into these individuals’ next encounter with a people in motion.

Years later, it seemed only natural for me — as a professor at Swarthmore College — to use the students’ talents to develop the Global Nonviolent Action Database, an online resource that includes the strategy and tactics of over 1,400 nonviolent direct action campaigns in almost 200 countries. Although today’s activists no longer have access to Bayard’s presence in real time, anyone can go online and likely find an instance of people in motion, facing circumstances a bit like the ones we face, or at least a range of tactical ideas that stimulate something that works for us.

Thank you, Bayard, for stretching me.

George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018).

This article was published on August 30, 2022, at WagingNonviolence.

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