January 30, 2020

In Chapter 49 of Isaiah, God gives his servant a song to sing, a song of renewal, a song of restoration, a song for the coastlands, a song for the highlands, a song for near neighbors and a song for distant strangers. God tells the servant that this song is not merely for Israel but for all creation. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth!

Much like the servant of Isaiah 49, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we honor in January, was given a soaring vision, a global vision, a vision for the nations, a vision of salvation intended to reach the ends of the earth, a vision for Montgomery but most certainly for the world far beyond Montgomery.

Yet, if King proclaimed a soaring vision, a profound dream, who organized it? After all, visions tend to float away unless someone organizes them, unless someone gives the flesh and form. In the case of Dr. King and much of the Civil Rights movement of the 40’s, 50’s and sixties, the organizer was one Bayard Rustin.

This is the way the King Papers Project at Stanford begins an article about Rustin:

A close advisor to Martin Luther King and one of the most influential and effective organizers of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was affectionately referred to as “Mr. March-on-Washington” by A. Philip Randolph. Rustin organized and led a number of protests in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While Rustin’s homosexuality and former affiliation with the Communist Party led some to question King’s relationship with him, King recognized the importance of Rustin’s skills and dedication to the movement. In a 1960 letter, King told a colleague: “We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle and we are convinced that Bayard’s expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value.”

Born on March 17, 1912, Rustin was one of 12 children raised by his grandparents, Janifer and Julia Rustin, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Rustin’s life-long commitment to nonviolence began with his Quaker upbringing and the influence of his grandmother, whose participation in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People resulted in leaders of the black community, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune, visiting the Rustin home during Rustin’s childhood. After graduating from West Chester High School, Rustin studied intermittently at Wilberforce University, Cheyney State Teachers College, and City College of New York.

Some of the lessons from the life and work of this great organizer are:

  1. What we learn as a child matters. In his Quaker home, Rustin learned a commitment to non-violence that would stay with him. He was known to say, “I want no human being to die.” In his home, particularly from his grandmother, he learned to accept himself as he was. When he told her that he preferred the company of young men to young women she said, “I suppose that’s what you need to do.”
  2. Because the path to our goals is never easy, because there are questions within and foes without, we all need allies in our work and we often need to accept those allies as they are. Rustin’s sexual identity was a problem for many of King’s colleagues, but without Rustin’s skills King would not have accomplished all that he did.
  3. With King, Rustin knew that if there was to be meaningful change, it was systems, not simply individuals, that must be transformed. Andre Towner writes – The various systems in which we are embedded are not benign. Whether it is shopping at a particular store because their ATM won’t charge us fees or using our social networks to obtain a new job, systems shape and guide our lives in often small but powerful ways. Understanding this, King saw the movement he represented as more than a plea for individual or national repentance but rather a call to redeem the systems and structures that created and sustained the evil and hatred that hindered America’s march toward its aspirational goal of unfettered access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people. King saw Christian faith in action as the primary means to dismantle the interrelated systems of poverty, racism and militarism, which stood in violent opposition to the Beloved Community. Rustin put it more succinctly, “The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so the wheels don’t turn.”
  4. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Rustin advanced the civil rights of African-Americans as well as the civil rights of gay people all while working for world peace. We are all shaped by the work of Dr. King and we are all shaped by the work of Bayard Rustin.
  5. It helps to sing. Music and singing were a huge part of Rustin’s life. These gifts must have helped him deal with life’s many challenges. They can do the same for us.
  6. We need people who have great dreams. We need people that can organize those dreams…Together let’s claim our identity as organizers of Isaiah’s dream and Dr. King’s dream.

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