Bayard Rustin and the Presidential Medal of Freedom

16 Aug
Bayard Rustin in "Eyes on the Prize"

Bayard Rustin interviewed by Blackside, 1979

Bayard Rustin will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. Rustin’s contributions to the civil rights movement, including his role as the main organizer and strategist of  the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, were often overlooked because leaders of the movement, and society in general, were not accepting of him as an openly gay man.

Rustin was not one to seek the limelight and worked behind the scenes on many of the civil rights movement campaigns including organizing the first Freedom Rides. He was also a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.

In a previous post, we mentioned the documentary Brother Outsider as a great place to learn more about Rustin. Segments of Rustin’s interview with Blackside appeared in Brother Outsider, and the entire interview can be read online as part of the digital project Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series.

Rustin’s mentor was A. Philip Randolph. Rahdolph had originally wanted to have a march on Washington in 1941 to call attention to the plight both social and economic of African Americans. The march did not happen then, but in 1963 A. Philip Randolph called on Rustin to organize the march and he accepted. In his interview from Eyes on the Prize, he discusses how that happened,

 Mr. Randolph asked me if I would set up the logistics for the march, which I immediately began to do, and those logistics were to create a—two hundred thousand people, we really got a quarter of a million, and to get every agency in America, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, intellectuals, labor movement, everybody involved and to contain so it was intensely nonviolent. And so I set up the plans for the march and Mr. Randolph gave me the right, along with Roy [Wilkins] and the other civil rights leaders, to see that that march was carried out.

Interview with Bayard Rustin, conducted by Blackside, Inc. in 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965)

In the interview Rustin discussed his role in the movement and his work with leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph. In speaking about the strategy he employed and philosophy of nonviolence which he shared with Dr. King he said,

Well, the strategy was essentially made by an eleven-man committee around Martin Luther King, on the one hand, and the NAACP on the other, who fitted the strategy into the core decisions they were getting. People often forget that at the lowest point of Montgomery, when Martin Luther King was sitting in court, in connection with the Montgomery protests, it was a young man who ran into the court room and told Martin Luther King, that the NAACP had just gotten a decision from the Supreme Court. So that the walking in the streets, on park, and Larry Wilkins, continuing to be in a court, dovetailed. But there was third, forgotten strategy. And that was that the brutality of the South did more to help our cause than anything else. It was when the great majority of Americans saw the cattle prod, and the bombing of the churches, and the blowing up of homes. So that corner also played a role in the strategy. And that is always the case, there is never one single thing going on. Also while it does not seem to many people clear, it seems to me that even a presence of Rap Brown and Stokely were in their own way creative, because one of the reasons that people would send so much money to Martin Luther King, because he was nonviolent, was that they were scared of Stokely and Rap. So that Stokely and Rap played a part of the strategy. So things do not happen because somebody sits at a desk and maps it. It happens because something starts and then all kinds of forces come to play upon it.

I think also that television played a very major role. Because now you were having brought into every living room in America the brutality of the situation. So, I think if we had television fifty years earlier, we would gotten rid of lynching fifty years earlier. Because it was made concrete as against reading the paper that a black had been killed. You saw the brutality. People saw Bull Connor, people saw the fire hoses. People saw the cattle prods. And this made a totally different response on the part of the general population… they could not deal with people who were not being violent. And there was a kind of moral Jiu-Jitsu going on, a moral wrestling and they didn’t know how to put hands on us, because it was so intensely nonviolent. That was its core, its essence. And that is what ultimately got King the Nobel Prize.

Interview with Bayard Rustin, conducted by Blackside, Inc. in 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965)

It is very fitting that Rustin will be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom so near the anniversary of the historic march he helped make a success.

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