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THE LIFE OF BAYARD RUSTIN
Rediscovering Bayard Rustin, a forgotten freedom fighter
"It is hard for
me to think of a man who was more talented than Bayard Rustin. Why did
he remain in the background . . . never coming forward in the full measure
of his great talent?"
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1912, Rustin began his 60-year career as an activist while in high school, when he protested segregation at a restaurant in his hometown. Rustin organized the first "Freedom Rides" during the late 1940s and met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956, after traveling to Montgomery, Alabama, to assist with the boycott of the city's segregated bus system. Upon his arrival, Rustin discovered guns inside King's house and quickly persuaded boycott leaders to adopt complete nonviolence. Known as the "American Gandhi," Rustin is credited with helping to mold the younger King into an international symbol of nonviolence, and with organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom-the largest protest America had ever seen. Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced, threatened and fired from leadership positions-sometimes because of his uncompromising political beliefs, but more often because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.
-The Power of Nonviolence. What is nonviolent direct action? Why is it effective? Can it still work in today's world? Explain these statements from the documentary: Rustin says, "There is no need to beat me. I am not resisting you." Rustin's colleague Bill Sutherland states, "Racial injustice is violence." (For more on nonviolence, see next page.)
- Rustin and King. What does the film tell you about Rustin's relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.? How does the film illuminate Dr. King's development as a leader? Does it change what you think about Dr. King? Why?
- Competing Ideologies. Respond to the two debates in the film, between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X, and between Rustin and Stokely Carmichael. How do these debates continue today?
- The March on Washington. What was its goal? How and why did the March movement begin in the 1940s? How did Senator Strom Thurmond attempt to derail the March in 1963? How did black leaders respond? What did the March accomplish? What do you think it would have felt like to be at the March on August 28, 1963?
- Dissent and Surveillance.
Why was Rustin under FBI surveillance? What does it mean to question someone's
loyalty as an American? Does that happen today? How?
- "One Human Family." What is your reaction to Rustin's point that all people are connected?
- Past to Present. How is Rustin's story a call to action for today? Which aspects of his story do you find most inspiring? What message do you take away from the film?
by Bayard Rustin
As BROTHER OUTSIDER reveals, Rustin believed deeply in the power of nonviolence to bring about social change. In the following 1942 essay, Rustin tells how he used nonviolence to challenge segregation on a southern bus. By quoting a segregationist, Rustin reminds readers that civil rights activists faced not only physical abuse, but also verbal abuse in the form of offensive language.
Recently I was planning to go from Louisville to Nashville by bus. I bought my ticket, boarded the bus, and, instead of going to the back, sat down in the second seat. The driver saw me, got up, and came toward me.
"Hey, you. You're supposed to sit in the back seat."
"Because that's the law. Niggers ride in back."
I said, "My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice."
Angry, but not knowing what to do, he got out and went into the station. He soon came out again, got into his seat, and started off.
Finally the driver, in desperation, must have phoned ahead, for about thirteen miles north Nashville I heard sirens approaching. The bus came to an abrupt stop, and a police car and two motorcycles drew up beside us with a flourish. Four policemen got into the bus and came to my seat.
"Get up, you ___ ___ nigger!"
"Why?" I asked. "I believe that I have a right to sit here," I said quietly. "If I sit in the back of the bus I am depriving that child"-I pointed to a little white child of five or six-"of the knowledge that there is injustice here, which I believe it is his right to know. It is my sincere conviction that the power of love in the world is the greatest power existing. If you have a greater power, my friend, you may move me."
How much they understood of what I was trying to tell them I do not know. By this time they were impatient and angry. As I would not move, they began to beat me about the head and shoulders, and I shortly found myself knocked to the floor. Then they dragged me out of the bus and continued to kick and beat me.
Knowing that if I tried to get up or protect myself in the first heat of their anger they would construe it as an attempt to resist and beat me down again, I forced myself to be still and wait for their kicks, one after another. Then I stood up, spreading out my arms parallel to the ground, and said, "There is no need to beat me. I am not resisting you."
On the Web
Presented by P.O.V. on PBS. A co-presentation of the Independent Television Service and the National Black Programming Consortium, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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