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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.

By Mark E. Dixon
Bayard Rustin's Civil Rights Legacy Began with Grandmother Julia Rustin

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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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?
 

» Read More About Bayard Rustin in the August 2013 Issue
» More Local History Stories