Bayard Rustin's Civil Rights Legacy Began with Grandmother Julia Rustin

Raised to treat all with respect, Bayard Rustin turned his grandmother’s lessons into a strategy.

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Bayard Rustin was one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. He was active in the cause before Malcolm X and before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin introduced the movement to the concept of non-violence, helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and was chief organizer of the 1964 March on Washington, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last month.

So how did a kid born to an unwed mother in West Chester get so smart? Credit his grandmother, Julia Davis Rustin. A nurse and charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she introduced Bayard to both good manners and civic activism.

“We were told that we should never discuss an issue when we were wrought up, but only when we were calm,” said Bayard. “We were taught that it was too tiresome to hate, and that we should never go to sleep without first reconciling differences that had occurred during the day. We should never raise the question as to who had caused a dispute, for nothing constructive was to be gained by arguing over who started what.”

Bayard’s absorption of his grandmother’s lessons took time. Imprisoned in 1943 at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for refusing the draft, he directed sharp and abusive language against prison staff. “When Julia, his grandmother, visited in November, she seemed rather put out by his petty rebelliousness and warned him on this point,” wrote biographer John D’Emilio. Bayard got his act together.

Born free in West Chester, Julia Davis was the daughter of Elizabeth, a domestic in the household of the Quaker Butler family. According to D’Emilio, Elizabeth Davis “had ancestors in Pennsylvania further back than anyone could remember,” including some Delaware Indians.

The Butlers were a large and influential family that included a couple of Thomas S. Butlers—one a judge and congressman, the other a Civil War officer who died at Antietam—as well as Smedley Butler, commandant of the Marine Corps. The Butlers saw that Julia Davis received a Quaker education and, later, training as a nurse.

In 1891, Julia Davis married Janifer Rustin, with whom she’d have eight kids. Her husband had moved to West Chester from Maryland sometime in the 1880s. Born in 1864, the infant Janifer had been a slave until adoption of the 13th Amendment in late 1865. In West Chester, he worked for more than 30 years as steward at the local Elks Lodge. “None of us can remember a single unkindness in him,” Bayard later said of Janifer.

In West Chester’s small black community, the Rustins were respected and relatively affluent. Leftovers from lodge events kept the Rustin kitchen well stocked. Connections made with affluent white families through Janifer’s job allowed the Rustins to rent a 10-room house on East Union Street. The family was able to support those Rustin children who chose to pursue their educations. Daughter Bessie became a teacher, and her sister, Ruth, an accountant.

Not all were so ambitious, however. Florence, the eldest, dropped out of school and took up with Archie Hopkins, a tall, muscular, broad-shouldered laborer. According to Bayard, Hopkins “drank an inordinate amount, gambled an inordinate amount and played around with girls an inordinate amount.”

So when Hopkins impregnated their 19-year-old daughter, the Rustins did not press him to marry her. Instead, when the child was born in 1912, they named him Bayard—after 19th-century Chester County author Bayard Taylor—and raised him as their ninth child.

Bayard discovered that Florence—called “Cissy”—wasn’t his sister when he asked about his origins after being teased in elementary school. “Well, now,” said Julia Davis. “I think it’s been too long. Florence is your mother, but we’re one big family, and we’re mothers for everybody.” Bayard’s relationship with Cissy was never close, and it barely existed with Hopkins. After his mother later married, he referred to her children as his cousins.

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