Warm-Up Question: Who is a leader?
Title: What is Leadership? One man behind the spotlight
Who is a leader? This is a common question asked by many everyday. There
are many different types of leaders from class leaders to leaders of
organizations, CEOs of businesses, and the political leader of a country. And
everyone has their own definition of a leader. Common qualities of a leader
include: strength, organization skills, someone who stands up for their values,
motivates people, and gets things done. Most people assume that national
leaders are well known and remembered. But this is not always the case.
Bayard Rustin was one of the many leaders of the Civil Rights Era, though few
know of his efforts today.
Civil Rights? It seems this idea more than any other has caused the most pain
and strife in our world. Rosa Parks, Dr. King, the abolitionists, Brown v. Board of
Education...these are what we think of when we think of Civil Rights. However,
the movement has deep roots which can be traced back long before these stars
stepped out on their stage. The movement was many hundreds of people adding
their voices to injustice first of slavery and then to Jim Crow Laws. People such
as Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, and Bayard Rustin set the foundation for
this movement. Rustin is a man of particular interest in this struggle because of
his leadership ability. His early life shows how a leader is formed.
Born in 1912, Bayard Rustin was raised by his grandparents in rural PA in a
Quaker household, not this Quaker! A Quaker is a person who believes deeply
in two things: God and peace. In a world full of war, being a Quaker is not an
easy thing to do. Throughout his life Rustin had the dilemma of staying true to
his faith or not. This idea is going to play a crucial role in not only the civil rights
movement, but also in the life of Mr. Rustin.
From an early age, Bayard Rustin also developed the passion and ability to
speak to crowds. In fact, Rustin won an award in public speaking as he
graduated with honors from Westchester High School. Though he went on to
college first at Wilber Force then Cheyney he never finished his degree. Instead
he turned to his strengths in public speaking and his devotion of peace and took
the opportunity to join the American Friends Service Committee. This committee
was a Quaker organization committed to social justice and peace, and in 1937, it
was concerned with the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini as political leaders in
Europe and were fearful that another world war may occur. Rustin saw the
opportunity to warn people of war before it actually broke out and show that
being a pacifist and for peace meant being active in stopping war. Rustin was
one of three hundred college students who were trained and sent throughout the
United States to promote peace by speaking to many different organizations,
church groups, labor unions, and clubs about the dangers of war.
After touring the United States, Rustin decided to settle down in New York and
try college again. Building on the opportunity he had to speak across the county,
he entered CUNY and quickly became busy by working in a many organizations
that promoted peace. He also joined a quartet that sang Jazz and Blues music
performing across the city. Rustin’s busy lifestyle in New York City allowed him
to meet many different people and make connections that he later used when
organizing protests. Good leaders know how to gather many different people
together behind a cause.
It was in New York City that Mr. Rustin first became involved in the non-violent
campaign against racial discrimination. Remember, from his childhood Rustin
believed in peace. Now as an adult, Rustin clung onto one of the greatest moral
models you can think of Gandhi, a leader of non-violent protest in India. Rustin
decided to follow Gandhi’s philosophy, Satyagraha, which is resistant to unjust
laws by mass civil disobedience. Gandhi said you as a person have the right to
reject laws you believe are unjust as long as you don’t cause others harm and
accept the responsibility and consequences of your action even if that means jail.
Rustin took Gandhi’s ideas and used them to protest against the Jim Crow laws
that segregated blacks and whites in public places in the South of the United
States. Rustin used Satyagraha to create a system to get people to simply ask
why? Why can’t I sit at the whites’ counter? Why can’t I sit at the front of the
bus? Why can’t I use the same water fountain as others? The key being that if
you ask why and protest against it you must accept the consequences of the
answer. This creates a dilemma for anyone who decides to follow these
teachings considering the most likely result of asking the question “Why?” is stop
at the county jail.
In 1943, Rustin seized another opportunity and helped organized a conference in
Chicago with a fellow Civil Rights leader A. Phillip Randolph. This was the first
time many people from different states banned together in announcing their non-
violent campaign against racial discrimination in America. Rustin was soon
teaching people about the non-violent approach to protest he believed in asking
the question why on a larger scale. But before he could take action, the reality of
World War II reached Rustin.
With the country in the grips of war, our friend Mr. Rustin was drafted. As you
can imagine this went against everything Rustin believed in. He refused to be
drafted and he refused to work in the civilian service believing it would encourage
the war even if he was not fighting it himself. But Rustin accepted his
consequences. So Mr. Rustin was arrested and sent to jail on January 12, 1944.
In jail, he again took an opportunity to spread the idea of peaceful protest as he
taught the other inmates reading, writing, music, and history. Rustin was
released from jail on June 11, 1946 and he went right back to his passion. He
joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation group urging his audience to follow the
Gandhian methodology of nonviolent protest. Seeing the segregation of troops in
World War II, Rustin announced, “No single injustice more bitterly stands out in
the hearts and minds of colored people the world over than the discrimination
and segregation in our military forces.”
In 1947, Rustin organized his first big action against segregation—the Journey of
Reconciliation to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. The
purpose of this journey was to see whether or not the police would enforce the
year old Irene Morgan Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination on inter-
state travel. On this journey black and white bus riders would sit together in the
front of the bus which was legal because the buses came from other states. It
would be illegal for this to occur on local buses. Rustin completed the journey
with fifteen other people and there were arrests made, but no large public outcry
nor public media attention. But this journey symbolized the efforts of many
different people in the United States who were taking the opportunity to stand up
and protest against segregation. These set the foundation for the much more
effective and well known freedom rides of the 1950s.
The following year Mr. Rustin went to India to meet with Gandhi’s son and the
Prime Minister of India to continue his own education on his life’s mission of non-
violence campaign. Rustin returns home full of enthusiasm and immediately
takes responsibility for his action from the Journey of Reconciliation and serves a
30 day sentence for sitting in the wrong seat on the bus.
Rustin now becomes a true leader for the causes he believes in. During the next
fifteen years, he worked with many organizations around the world with the goals
of peace and equal rights. Rustin traveled back and forth across the United
States, to Europe, and Africa organizing non-violent protests and teaching others
how to do the same. Rustin led groups of protesters in Africa on campaigns and
marches against nuclear bombs. He campaigned against the Korean War, and
inspired people at pacifist festivals in England. Rustin also became the influential
man behind the scene helping African leaders struggling for independence.
Many people viewed Rustin as a natural leader. As one supporter states,
“Bayard was a brilliant organizer with an amazingly quick understanding of the
tasks needed to carry out a particular project. He had confidence in his own
authority, his ability to take hold of a situation, and exercised leadership by
delegating tasks. In many ways he was fascinated by power and he derived an
immense satisfaction from using it to good effect.” This again brings the idea of
leadership to the forefront of our discussion, do you really need to be the face of
a movement to be considered a leader of it?
It is clear Rustin becomes an important leader of the Civil Rights Movement
behind the scene. Many of the most well known acts of civil disobedience would
not have been possible had Rustin not helped with the organizing of them. It was
the Montgomery bus boycott that brings Bayard Rustin together with the most
well known faces of the movement becoming the man behind the spotlight of
Martin Luther King Jr.
Soon after Rosa Parks is arrested on December 1, 1955, for sitting in the front of
the bus, Rustin arrives in Montgomery, Alabama. This was not the first time a
black person had refused to move from the white section of a bus, nor the first
time someone had been arrested because of it. But it was a moment in history
where all the conditions were right and people decided to boycott the buses for
two days. The movement grew immediately and turned into a year long struggle
on the national scale.
“The nonviolent movement in America is airborne. Why am I not more
exuberant? Is it because it is not I who leads it? Is there a green-eyed monster
peering through my eyes? I had labored a decade and a half in the vineyards of
nonviolence. Now, out of nowhere, someone comes and harvests the grapes
and drinks the wine.” That someone was, of course Dr. King.
This brings us to the question of what makes a leader? Do you have to be in the
front of the line? Is it your face that matters? Or can you be the person leading
with your convictions. Could you have what it takes to be the great OZ, the man
behind the screen pulling the strings?
Well Bayard Rustin becomes this man teaching MLK Jr how to lead a national
non-violent struggle against segregation. When Rustin first arrives at King’s
house there is a guard outside with a gun and other guns inside the house.
Rustin asks, “How can you be nonviolent and carry these guns?” Rustin then
explains his philosophy from Gandhi and gets King to agree with him. Rustin
stays for a month helping King define his own leadership and returns to New
York, but stays in close touch with King throughout the year. Rustin used his
contacts to help keep the bus boycott moving by organizing fundraising by
hosting concerts at Madison Square Garden, and calling up people to donate
cars and organize rides for people, so the local people from Montgomery were
able to keep the boycott going. The US Supreme Court brought the Bus Boycott
to an end on Dec. 21, 1956. Success! King invited Rustin to celebrate the
victory, but he declined. He was content to just be the man behind the scene.
He was happy to have influenced the leadership, and did not need to be the
Rustin saw Montgomery as a starting point of success against the Jim Crow
laws, but believed that what was needed was the development of a group in the
South promoting non-violence protest movements. King gave Rustin the green
light to draw up the plans, though King did not believe that something so large
could be organized. Rustin knew he could get it done, and soon the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference with 60 ministers across the south was formed
and King was elected as the leader. As the leader, King was able to continue his
protests against the Jim Crow laws.
The Civil Rights movement was not just one group and Rustin continued to work
for a variety of groups including the NAACP. Rustin’s next project was
organizing a protest at the Lincoln Memorial on the third anniversary of Brown vs.
Board of Education on May 17, 1957. This was the first large scale gathering of
people at the memorial. 30,000 people including Sydney Poitier, Sammy Davis
Jr. and Jackie Robinson showed up to demand full integration of schools. The
highlight of the afternoon was MLK’s speech written in collaboration with Rustin.
King accepted Rustin’s advice on content but kept his own dramatic language.
The two agreed to disagree on the strength of the language. Rustin had a
remarkable ability to pinpoint others strengths and used them to the advantage of
the cause he was working towards. King was a powerful speaker and Rustin
simply enhanced his words with meaning.
This was the first of many marches organized by Rustin to make people aware of
the issues surrounding civil rights. Throughout the next decade, Rustin
continued to organize conventions, fund raise for people, including MLK Jr. when
he was indicted for tax fraud, and peace marches around the world. As Rustin
continued to ask “Why” throughout his lifetime he accepted his 22 arrests with
dignity and pride knowing these consequences helped the cause.
Rustin routinely saw the strength of others and used that to the advantage of the
cause. He encouraged Martin Luther King Jr. to become the leader he was in
Montgomery. He brought King and the many different groups of the civil rights
movement together to work together or the common cause. And everywhere he
went he continued to teach people how to successfully organize nonviolent
People began to be jealous of Rustin’s relationship with King and disagreed with
his political ideas. These are the people who tried to bring him down.
Congressman Reverend Adam Clayton Power Jr. was jealous the Rustin had
King’s ear and more or less forced him to resign from the SCLC. Rustin said he
resigned not to be an obstacle- one of the prices of leadership that we see today.
But not everyone tried to bring him down. There were several who had a great
deal of respect for Rustin’s work. Paul Barnes, a young black socialist in the
1960s had this to say about Rustin: “(he was the) Fastest man thinking on his
feet I had ever seen. Everyone who worked with him loved him.”
The crowing jewel on Rustin’s protest belt must have been organizing the famous
March on Washington in 1963. Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream is well-known and
often quoted. What is not known is that it was possible because Bayard Rustin
organized the March on Washington. The March took place in front of the
Lincoln Memorial because it was the 100 year anniversary of Lincoln’s
Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves in the United States. The
March was to call attention to the unfulfilled promises of equal rights and jobs
that were still in existence. It was the first occasion where all the different civil
rights leaders and organizations collaborated on a single project. Rustin’s job
was to make sure everything ran smoothly so the focus could be on the
speeches that day. He was responsible for bringing all the different groups
together to work cooperatively. He took care of any differences and kept
everyone focused on the goal. John Lewis, remembers how Rustin was able to
lead the organization of the event: “I felt Bayard had the skill and capacity...He
was the best organizer with an all inclusive view of American society.”
Rustin was also in charge of making sure everything on the day of the March
worked. He brought together over 250,000 people in one place making sure that
everyone could arrive without any problems. It was a success because Rustin
imagined all types of disorder in advance and planed around the possibilities. He
believed that any unruly demonstrator at the event would be a traitor to the cause
and shift the focus of the entire day and event away from its purpose. Rustin
arranged for the deployment of 2000 police officers, and used black sergeants to
spot trouble makers to keep peace during this nonviolent protest. He told people
to bring their own food but also organized water stations and simple food stations
to make sure people were well fed. Rustin made sure there were enough
medical stations and toilets throughout the crowds so that everyone was
comfortable as they waited for the speeches. He also encouraged parents not to
bring children under the age of fourteen. All these small decisions allowed the
March to be a success. People remember the “I have a dream…” speech.
There was not one problem associated with the day because of Rustin’s work.
President Kennedy had tried to stop the March on Washington before he began
fearing the possible problems, but at the end of the day, he came out and
congratulated the organizers on the order and nonviolence of the day.
The March on Washington transformed a southern movement to a national one
and is cited in helping to pass the Civil Rights act of ’64 and the Voting Act of ’65.
Rustin was asked later to organize similar marches, but he declined not wanting
to ruin a good thing: “If you bring off a good thing,” he told a friend in England,
“you shouldn’t try to repeat it... The march,” he said in retrospect, “made
Americans feel for the first time that we were capable of being truly a nation that
we were capable of moving beyond division and bigotry. I think it will be quite
some time before there will be another such spiritual uprising in the hearts of
people. The human spirit is like a flame. It flashes up and is gone. And you
never know when that flame will come again.”
Rustin continued to be an activist for social equality and pacifism until his death
in 1987. He was a significant leader during the Civil Rights Era. Throughout his
life Bayard Rustin was able to turn all his dilemmas into opportunities to advance
peace and race relations in our world. Rustin was a true leader in American