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January 01, 2014

Human Rights Hero: Remembering Bayard Rustin

by Walter Naegle

The award-winning documentary film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin opens with a quote: “The proof that one truly believes is in action.” For more than sixty years, Bayard, my life partner for a decade, lived this idea, putting his beliefs and often his body on the line to advance the cause of human rights both at home and abroad.

Known principally as the masterful organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bayard had already worked for three decades on behalf of civil rights for African Americans, but also for the rights of other minorities and the poor of all races. In a recent book, A Principled Stand, Gordon Hirabayashi, an American of Japanese descent imprisoned during World War II for refusing to report to a detention camp, recalls an inspiring jailhouse visit by Bayard. At that time, Bayard was working with the American Friends Service Committee, protecting property of Japanese Americans forcibly relocated to camps in remote areas of the West.

Actions like these were rooted in Bayard’s Quaker upbringing, with values that spoke of the oneness of the human family, the sacredness of life, and the importance of nonviolence. His grandmother, Julia Davis Rustin, herself a fighter for social justice, taught Bayard to stand up to injustice wherever it occurred. Thus, Bayard could be found on the front lines of the African-American struggle, but also working against colonialism in Africa and India, protesting South African apartheid, fighting on behalf of Southeast Asian and Haitian immigrants to the United States, supporting freedom for Soviet Jewry, and standing with workers in the Polish Solidarity Movement.

I accompanied Bayard on some of his travels and was amazed at how the world was his home. Whether in a refugee camp or an ambassador’s residence, he treated everyone as an equal. His demeanor was welcoming and open and he had deep respect for the human personality, regardless of cultural differences.

His principles were grounded in faith, but over time he learned a practical, political lesson that served him well in a country that was rapidly becoming a nation of minorities: One must work in coalition with other groups to advance the common good. The March on Washington was a prime example of this strategy. Although initiated by the “Big Six” civil rights groups, the leadership expanded to include labor and religious groups representing a broad spectrum of Americans working for freedom for African Americans, but also for a better standard of living for all. I think that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement understood this lesson as it built a coalition in support of the movement for equality.

As we reflect on a challenging year in our nation’s history, recalling both the tragedies and triumphs, we can measure the worth of the struggle by the progress made in fifty years. Meeting recently with a group of young LGBT activists, I was asked how Bayard managed to carry on, despite the many obstacles thrown in his path. Bayard’s friends knew that he loved his work, but we also recall that he often quoted from the Hebrew “Ethics of the Fathers,” saying, “Ours is not to complete the task, but never to lay it down.” Anyone working for human rights should keep these words in mind.

Walter Naegle

Walter Naegle lived and worked with Bayard Rustin for a decade, and traveled on research missions with him to El Salvador, Haiti, South Africa, and Grenada. He directs the Bayard Rustin Fund and works part time for the Religious Society of Friends and the American Friends Service Committee.