Bayard Rustin

Civil Rights Activist

“If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end.”

Bayard Rustin was a civil rights organizer and activist, best known for his work as adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Early Life and Education

Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He had been raised to believe that his parents were Julia and Janifer Rustin, when in fact they were his grandparents. He discovered the truth before adolescence, that the woman he thought was his sibling, Florence, was in fact his mother, who'd had Rustin with West Indian immigrant Archie Hopkins.

Bayard Rustin

Rustin attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, and Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheney University of Pennsylvania) in Pennsylvania, both historically black schools. 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 1930s before he became disillusioned with its activities and resigned.


Political Philosophy and Civil Rights Career

In his personal philosophy, Rustin combined the pacifism of the Quaker religion, the non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph.

During the Second World War he worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-related hiring. After meeting A. J. Muste, a minister and labor organizer, he also participated in several pacifist groups, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Rustin was punished several times for his beliefs. During the war, he was jailed for two years when he refused to register for the draft. When he took part in protests against the segregated public transit system in 1947, he was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks. In 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge for publicly engaging in homosexual activity and was sent to jail for 60 days; however, he continued to live as an openly gay man.

By the 1950s, Rustin was an expert organizer of human rights protests. In 1958, he played an important role in coordinating a march in Aldermaston, England, in which 10,000 attendees demonstrated against nuclear weapons.


Bayard Rustin

Martin Luther King and the March on Washington

Rustin met the young civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and 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.

He assisted King with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956. Most famously, Rustin was a key figure in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.

In 1965, Rustin and his mentor Randolph co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor organization for African-American trade union members. Rustin continued his work within the civil rights and peace movements, and was much in demand as a public speaker.


Later Career and Publications

Rustin received numerous awards and honorary degrees throughout his career. 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 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.


Quick Facts

Birth Date:
April 15, 1889

Death Date:
May 16, 1979


  • Rustin also involved in the organization of Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King Jr. He helped to reinforce the leadership of King.
  • The main philosophy of Bayard Rustin that he liked to spread to other people in the civil right movement was the non violence practice. He encouraged the people to have the nonviolent resistance. This philosophy influenced him a lot after he worked in Gandhi’s movement in India.
  • In 1955 till 1968, Rustin became the leading strategist in Civil Rights Movement of United States.
  • A. Philip Randolph was the African American labor union president and socialist who appointed Bayard Rustin as the chief organizer for the Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
  • His action and philosophy was inspirational. There is no need to wonder that the young activists like Stokely Carmichael and Tom Kahn were influenced by Rustin.
  • In 1972, Rustin was appointed as the honorary chairperson of Socialist Party of America. Then the name was changed into Social Democrats. In 1970s, he became the national chairman.
  • Rustin was involved in various humanitarian missions in 1970s and 1980s. He went to Cambodia and Vietnam to aid the refugees.
  • Bayard Rustin
  • Bayard Rustin
  • Bayard Rustin

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