When I think of some of the best, largely untold stories of activism, the first person I think of is Bayard Rustin, and his involvement with the American civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Bayard was one of the most important thought-leaders of that time, and played a huge role in the movement’s success. However, Bayard’s story is kept out of history books, and has been excluded in favor of stories of other prominent figures such as Dr. King or Malcolm X. When I mention “Bayard Rustin” in conversation, most people reply, “Who was he?” Bayard’s story is important to me, as a young, black, gay man, for he exemplifies resilience, character, shrewdness and pride. For my activist history project, I chose to highlight Bayard Rustin.
I expected that my project would center on Bayard’s involvement with Dr. King and the March on Washington in 1963. However, during my research, I ended up learning about Bayard in 1947, earlier in his organizing career, and stumbled across two other lesser-known, great stories that are distantly related to Bayard’s early activism. I decided that my project would take a different direction, and tell these stories instead.
Bayard Rustin was born in 1917 in West Chester, PA. His mother was active with the local chapter of the NAACP, which exposed Bayard early to a life concerned with action, justice, and civil rights. Bayard attended Wilberforce University, an HBCU, on a music scholarship; he was a talented singer and musician. Bayard joined communist groups in college, but later became disillusioned with their principles. He declared himself a pacifist, and was jailed in 1942 for violating the National Selective Service Act. He continued to advocate for pacifist and human rights issues while incarcerated. Bayard was openly gay.
In 1941, Bayard began work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith pacifist activist group under the leadership of other notable pacifist activists such as A.J. Muste. Bayard became the Director of Civil Rights for the organization, and later worked on the creation of a separate FOR project, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). CORE parted ways with the FOR, as CORE did not want to be affiliated with a solely pacifist group like the FOR. Bayard continued to work with both groups, and was paid through the FOR to organize CORE.
In 1947, Bayard Rustin and CORE organized what was called the Journey of Reconciliation, referred to as the “first freedom ride”, a predecessor of the more famous Freedom Rides of 1961. Many accounts of the ’61 Freedom Rides do not include the earlier rides, including the stories of Bayard Rustin, Irene Morgan, or Isaac Woodard.
In 1946, Isaac Woodard, an honorably discharged WWII soldier was traveling on a bus, home to North Carolina. At a rest stop, Woodard asked the driver, who was white, if he could use the restroom. After protesting, the driver eventually let Woodard off of the bus to pee. Woodard returned to the bus, and the ride continued. At the second rest stop, the bus driver called the local police to have Woodard removed. Woodard was handled by police, beaten, arrested, and charged with “disorderly conduct”, after being accused of drinking beers with other soldiers on the bus. During his arrest, Woodard was taken in an alley and severely beaten with nightsticks, and later had his eyes gouged and became permanently blinded at the hands of a police officer, Sheriff Linwood Shull. Woodard pressed charges against Shull. Shull was acquitted, as the court held Shull was merely exercising self-defense, and Woodard appeared to be drunk, unpredictable and boisterous. Woodard was found guilty and fined $50.
In 1944, Irene Morgan, a Baltimore native, was travelling home on a bus from Virginia after having a miscarriage. Already seated in the back, she was asked to give up her seat to members of a white family that had just entered a packed bus. Morgan refused to stand, and was arrested and jailed for her actions. These actions caught the attention of Thurgood Marshall, who took Morgan’s case to the Supreme Court. In 1946, in the decision of Virginia v. Morgan, the court ruled that segregation on buses violated the Constitution’s protection of interstate commerce. This landmark decision, which set the tone for other segregation laws at the time, fueled activists to organize and show support for anti-segregation legislation. Many southern states refused to recognize the decision. This case inspired Bayard Rustin’s song, You Don’t Have To Ride Jim Crow, during which he mentioned that “Irene Morgan won her case!”
Bayard’s Journey of Reconciliation was a major action in response to the court’s ruling. Bayard Rustin, along with 18 other activists, 9 black and 9 white, set out to “test” the law’s recognition and enforcement. The activists boarded a bus, black activists took a seat in the front and white activists were seated in the back. During the ride, the bus was stopped, and all 18 were beaten, dragged off of the bus and arrested. Bayard was sentenced to a chain gang for a year. This event is largely considered the “first freedom ride”, and the momentum would not have been possible without the courage of lesser-known activists.
Bayard continued to become one of the most influential civil rights leaders and organizers of our time. By 1960, he was one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most trusted advisors. He was ousted briefly from Dr. King’s movement due to fear that his sexuality, in conjunction with a minor sexual acts charge between him and another consenting man, would divert attention from the movement and reflect negatively on King’s regime and power. Finally, once civil rights leaders realized that no one could do a better job organizing and strategizing that Bayard Rustin, he was invited back to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963, and is seen pictured alongside Dr. King for the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Bayard Rustin was the chief leader of that event which, at that time, was the largest civil demonstration in American history and continues to resonate as one of the most powerful events of our time. Yet, Bayard remains unknown to many.
It is important that we retell the stories of Bayard Rustin, Irene Morgan and Isaac Woodard, and other lesser known activists, for sometimes we forget the little stories that inspire big change.