For more than 50 years, Bayard Rustin was a strategist and activist in the struggle for human rights and economic justice. Born in 1912, he grew up in West Chester , Pennsylvania , where he excelled as a student, athlete and musician. While he never received his B.A., Rustin attended Wilberforce University , Cheyney State College, and the City College of New York.

Raised as a Quaker, Rustin began his lifelong career as a social and political activist in 1937, when he moved to New York after completing an activist training program of the American Friends Service Committee. At City College , he became an organizer for the Young Communist League, which hired him as a youth organizer to work on the problem of racial segregation and to advocate an anti-war position. Rustin quit the League in 1941, after the Communist Party changed its organizing focus due to the war in Europe .

In 1947, under the auspices of the FOR and CORE, Bayard Rustin helped plan the first "freedom ride" in the South, challenging Jim Crow practices that had been made illegal by a 1946 Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination in interstate travel. Known as the Journey of Reconciliation, riders engaged in direct protest by intentionally violating the segregated seating patterns on Southern buses and trains. Along the way, they were beaten, arrested and fined. Arrested in North Carolina , Rustin served 22 days on a chain gang. His account of that experience, serialized in The New York Post, spurred an investigation that contributed to the abolition of chain gangs in North Carolina . The Journey was the prototype for the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s. In the late 1940s, Mr. Rustin was instrumental in securing President Truman’s order eliminating segregation in the armed forces.

In 1956, at Mr. Randolph’s request, he was granted temporary leave from his position to assist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His extensive background in the theory, strategies, and tactics of nonviolent direction action proved invaluable to Dr. King.

Mr. Rustin organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957, The National Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959, and was the Deputy Director and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which, at that time, was the largest demonstration in the nation’s history. Thought by many to be the high point of the Civil Rights movement, the March on Washington served as the platform for Dr. Kings historic "I Have a Dream" speech and helped secure pending civil rights legislation.

Mr. Rustin had a long involvement with refugee affairs. As a Vice Chairman of the International Rescue Committee, he traveled the world working to secure food, medical care, education, and proper resettlement for refugees. His visits to Southeast Asia helped to bring the plight of the Vietnamese "boat people" to the attention of the American public. In 1980 he took part in the international March for Survival on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1982, he also helped found the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Refugees.

As Chairman of the Executive Committee of Freedom House, an agency which monitors international freedom and human rights, Mr. Rustin observed elections in Zimbabwe , El Salvador , and Grenada . His last mission abroad, coordinated by Freedom House, was a delegation to Haiti to help create democratic reform in that country.

At the time of his death, Bayard Rustin was Co-Chairman of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and President of the A. Philip Randolph Educational Fund. He was Chairman of Social Democrats USA, a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and a life member of Actors' Equity. He also served on numerous boards and committees, and was the recipient of more than a dozen honorary doctorates.

©2005 by Kenny Smith