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’s childhood was one of mixed social and religious traditions, which he began to sort out early. Janifer Rustin was an active member of a local African Methodist Episcopal church, and Bayard developed his tenor voice singing at its services. Julia Rustin was also an AME member for appearances sake, but usually attended Quaker meetings, introducing Bayard to Quaker ideas and nonviolence. “Most of all, she impressed on him to need to present a calm demeanor to the outside world,” he wrote. “‘One just doesn’t lose one’s temper,’ Bayard heard often.”
Julia was the dominant presence in young Bayard’s life. He later described her as “an extremely dominant personality, but not at all domineering.” Bayard learned to treat everyone with respect, to hear every side of a controversy and to put oneself at the service of others.
Julia Rustin founded a day nursery for the children of black working mothers, served on the board of visiting black nurses and organized a summer bible camp. As a parent, she was a creative disciplinarian. When Bayard and his classmates taunted the owner of a Chinese laundry as a “chink,” she sentenced him to work at the laundry for two weeks. He came away from the experience a friend of the owner and his family.
As an early member of the NAACP, Julia was a local beacon in the larger African American community. Towering figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, educator Mary McLeod Bethune and activist/poet James Weldon Johnson stayed with the Rustins when they passed through. The house was also an unofficial social center for their black neighborhood. “[Julia’s] warm spirit and Janifer’s generosity beckoned other children into the home,” wrote D’Emilio. “To the youngsters of the east end, Julia and Janifer were simply Ma and Pa Rustin.”
In Pennsylvania, segregation was the local custom if not the law. Bayard had childhood friends from a variety of ethnic groups, but attended a segregated elementary school before moving on to the integrated upper schools.
In high school, Bayard seems to have flourished, and his list of activities and honors in the yearbook is longer than those of any of his peers. As a freshman, he captured the school’s oratory award—“the first colored youth to have won it in 40 years,” Julia crowed in a letter to the editor published in the Daily Local News. Bayard wrote poetry for the school magazine, won the school essay contest, played leading roles in dramatic productions and placed into an advanced curriculum. Despite all this, classmate Mary Thomas remembered him as “just part of the gang.”
He also won letters in both football and track, which ultimately led to his first involvement in protest. At away games, hotels sometimes refused accommodations to black players. When the track team traveled to Altoona, a group organized by Bayard refused to compete when the main hotel turned them away.
After graduation, Bayard attended both Wilberforce and Cheyney universities, but left without earning degrees. Instead, he moved to New York, where he joined a Quaker meeting and attended City College, a hot bed of political activism. He supported the political efforts of socialist Norman Thomas and became a follower of civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph and pacifist minister A.J. Muste. He briefly joined the U.S. Communist Party.
After 1940, Bayard worked for the American Friends Service Committee and the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, touring the country to speak on race relations, war and peace and criminal justice policies. In the 1950s, he would use the skills, knowledge and contacts gained during this period to develop strategies for the civil rights struggle. In 1956, at Randolph’s request, Rustin would go to Montgomery, Ala., to assist the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in sustaining the boycott. He soon became a valued advisor to King.
First, though, was his first imprisonment for refusing the draft during World War II. As a Quaker, he had the option of refusing military service on religious grounds. But Bayard believed that the alternative service offered to conscientious objectors amounted to pointless make-work and didn’t offer a sufficient challenge to the war “system.” In 1943, he was sent to a federal penitentiary at Ashland, Ky., where officials soon classified him as a “notorious offender” for his role organizing black inmates to press for their equal treatment. He also drew attention for his open physical affection for other male inmates. The warden called Rustin “arrogant” and “picayunish” about what he perceived to be his rights.
In the wartime environment, many of Rustin’s West Chester relatives were embarrassed by his jailing. Julia, however, was not. Writing to the Local, Julia said that she and Janifer “feel greatly the fact of our son Bayard’s imprisonment, but feel that he must follow the dictates of his conscience.”
Transferred to Lewisburg, Bayard changed not at all. In December 1945, when Julia made a Christmas visit, he was squabbling with authorities about the use of inmate registration numbers to track medical supplies. Grandmother and grandson had a conversation.
In the future, Rustin would be known for going out of his way to get along with his jailers. Sentenced in 1946 to 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang for violating Jim Crow laws, he subsequently wrote of befriending the nastiest prison guard in the place. “He submitted to all the indignities without losing his composure,” wrote a friend, Newton Garver. “He always had a friendly greeting. He asked about the guard’s health. He listened to his troubles and he inquired about his wife and children.”
At his release, the guard shook his hand and said, “It has been nice to know you, Mr. Rustin.”
Now, where do you suppose Rustin learned such behavior?