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   Volume II, Issue 3
February 2006   

Bayard Rustin, Lost prophet of social justice

Bayard Rustin, activist and intellectual, strategist behind the 1963 March on Washington and the man who infused Gandhian principles of nonviolence into Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggle for civil rights, remains less well known than other figures of recent black American history.

Handsome, brilliant and blessed with a melodious tenor voice, Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, less than twenty miles from Villanova. However, he was also a communist in his youth, as well as a World War II draft resister and an openly gay man. “None are characteristics designed to win a revered place in our nation’s history,” writes John D’Emilio, one of Rustin’s recent biographers (Lost Prophet, p.1).

Remembered by his associates as electric, charismatic and prophetic, Rustin was nevertheless relegated to the background by the civil rights and social justice groups that he tirelessly served. Later in life he bore the scorn of younger black American ideologists because of his steadfast rejection of violence and separatism, reflecting his Quaker background. “Only good-will resistance, in the end, is capable of overcoming injustice,” he said in a speech in 1948 (Ripples of Hope, p.195).

Rustin died in 1987, and a park and high school have been named after him in his native West Chester. Laudatory remarks by President Ronald Reagan helped overcome opposition by some members of the local citizenry.

Selected resources on Bayard Rustin available at Falvey:

Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. E 185.97 .R93L49 2000

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.  VT 4708 VHS (videocassette)

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.  E 185.97 .R93D46 2003

Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches.  E 184 .A1 R53 2003

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin.  E 185.615 .R48 2003 

Selected Web resources on Bayard Rustin:

Clip of Rustin singing a spiritual  ("I don't care where you bury my body, My soul is goin' to rest with God")

Selected essays by Rustin  ("We Challenged Jim Crow" and others)

Biographical note by Water Naegle  (Rustin’s partner from 1977 until Rustin’s death in 1987 and the executor and archivist of the Bayard Rustin Estate)

Interview with biographer John D’Emilio

The debate about Rustin, a controversial figure


Barbara Quintiliano, Instructional Design librarian at Falvey, lives near West Chester.