Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Cedric Highlights Bayard Rustin for Black History Month

Cedric: Who was Bayard Rustin? One of the movers of the civil rights movements and one that's only now being reclaimed by history.

Hostility and silence is nothing new to Rustin (1912-1987). In 1960, he had to leave the SCLC when the planned march on the Democratic Convention resulted in Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (yes, Adam Clayton Powell was black) threatening to publicly spread a falsehood that Bayard Rustin and MLK were lovers. Bayard Rustin was, however, gay. And during the plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1964, Senator Strom Thurmond would attempt to use that to force the march committee to dump Rustin (one of the lead organizers of the march). This time, no one backed down and Rustin remained.

But as a black man and a gay man in the pre-Stonewall period, Bayard Rustin was often sidelined or shoved out. For anyone interested in Rustin, I would recommend Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin edited by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise. This book will give you a good overview of Rustin's thoughts and his activism.

Rustin was raised a Quaker and refused to fight in WWII due to his beliefs in pacifism and landed a three year prison sentence as a result.

As a member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), he helped take the integration campaign into the south in the forties. This was in April of 1947, when there were designated seating sections on buses for blacks and for whites. CORE used white and black volunteers and they would sit in the sections not designated for them on rides through "cities in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia."

He traveled all over the world teaching and speaking on non-violent methods of change.

He was an "election observer in Barbados, El Salvador, Grenada and Zimbabwe."

I want to quote from his "In Defense of Muhammad Ali." To set the stage for those unfamiliar, Muhmmad Ali haad refused to join the armed services for religious reasons. Rustin wrote:

In the case of Ali and the Muslims, the authorities seem to be insisting on the right to make their own determination. The Constitution clearly warns against any official establishment of religion, but it would seem that the authorities, by now insisting on the right to determine what is or isn't a legitimate minister, or what is or isn't a legitimate religion, are taking a clear position on the establishment of religion.
Another reason for public hostility toward Muhammad Ali is that he changed his name. The great majority of the press and public have refused to respect his wishes or his right. This is rather strange, considering that no one refers to Cary Grant as "Archibald Alexander Leach who wants to be called Cary Grant" or to Billy Graham as "William Franklin alias Billy Graham." Nor did anyone contest the right of Norma Jean Baker to be known as Marilyn Monroe. The fact that neither the press nor society shares a belief in Muhammad Ali's way of life is hardly a sufficient excuse for them to violate his personal privilege.
Consdiering how lucrative it would have been for him to become a "playboy boxer," and the great losses and penalties he now faces by deciding to confront the convictions in himself, his courage is more to be admired than vilified -- particularly in a period when there is so little consistency between belief and action.

You can find all of that essay in Time on Two Crosses and much more. History is rescuing Rustin and we can learn a lot from his life story and his advocacy. There are many African-Americans who have contributed to the struggle for equality and justice. So many, that choosing one was the hardest thing for me. (And I may send in another before the month is over.) I could write a long thing on Tupac Shakur with no trouble. I could cite Malcolm X's many accomplishments easily. But I wanted to go with one of the many people that may not be universally known. The movement towards equality goes on and, just as back then, it is not about one person but about many. I hope something I've written in this increased someone's knowledge and I want to say that I've enjoyed every contribution from the highlight of the great Julian Bond that I think started the month off to the poem about MLK last night. They have all been a joy to read and it's been a pleasure to check the site to see who was getting noted.

There is so much we can learn about humanity and about activism in those who have come before us and, as an African-American male, I find many strong voices of all colors, races and ethnicities. I hope that the daily highlights have served to increase not just our understandings of the accomplishments of noted African-Americans but demonstrated to us how change can come about. Black History Month was always my favorite month in school and I think it's important because so many general histories have overlooked the accomplishments of African-Americans. And I think that in highlighting, we all learn a little more about ourselves and our humanity.