Today I’m sharing a powerful reflection from the late Bayard Rustin, notable change-maker for civil rights, nonviolence and a reconciled world. I have to state up-front that I share this reflection with some trepidation. If you’re white and reading this, I invite you to resist with me the temptation to idealize Rustin’s courageous nonviolent approach as the ‘ideal behavior’ for people of color and other oppressed peoples, while leaving the violent normalcy of our own structures of white supremacy intact. In my experience this weaponizes the ideal of nonviolence itself, against black and brown movements for justice that don’t pass the muster of our armchair criticism.
Instead, I invite you to see yourself in the various white folks in Rustin’s account: the belligerent bus driver, the sadistic ‘law enforcement,’ and – yes – the people who intervened and stayed on as witnesses to ensure that justice would be served. If you’re most tempted – as am I – to identify with the latter interveners and witnesses, then I encourage you to pay greater attention in your life, actively putting yourself in the harm’s way that our black, brown, immigrant, and non-Christian sisters, brothers, and non-binary siblings face on a routine and involuntary basis. If you see something, say something. And if you’re not seeing anything, consider making a change of venue part of your routine. This post by Chris Crass is an excellent starting point for aspiring allies like you and me.
Now: Please read Brother Bayard’s painful, dignified, and transformational account with your whole heart.
RECENTLY I WAS PLANNING to go from Louisville to Nashville by bus. I bought my ticket, boarded the bus, and, instead of going to the back, sat down in the second seat. The driver saw me, got up, and came toward me.
“Hey, you. You’re supposed to sit in the back seat.”
“Because that’s the law. N****** ride in back.”
I said, “My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.”
Angry , but not knowing what to do, he got out and went into the station. He soon came out again, got into his seat, and started off. This routine was gone through at each stop, but each time nothing came of it. Finally the driver, in desperation, must have phoned ahead, for about thirteen miles north of Nashville I heard sirens approaching. The bus came to an abrupt stop, and a police car and two motorcycles drew up beside us with a flourish . Four policemen got into the bus, consulted shortly with the driver, and came to my seat.
“Get up, you n*****!”
“Why?” I asked.
“Get up, you black -”
“I believe that I have a right to sit here,” I said quietly. “If I sit in the back of the bus I am depriving that child” – I pointed to a little white child of five or six – “of the knowledge that there is injustice here, which I believe is his right to know. It is my sincere conviction that the power of love in the world is the greatest power existing. If you have a greater power, my friend, you may move me.”
How much they understood of what I was trying to tell them I do not know. By this time they were impatient and angry. As I would not move, they began to beat me about the head and shoulders, and I shortly found myself knocked to the floor. Then they dragged me out of the bus and continued to kick and beat me.
Knowing that if I tried to get up or protect myself in the first heat of their anger they would construe it as an attempt to resist and beat me down again, I forced myself to be still and wait for their kicks, one after another. Then I stood up, spreading out my arms parallel to the ground, and said,
“There is no need to beat me. I am not resisting you.”
At this three white men, obviously Southerners by their speech, got out of the bus and remonstrated with the police. Indeed, as one of the policemen raised his club to strike me, one of them, a little fellow, caught hold of it and said, “Don’t you do that!”
A second policeman raised his club to strike the little man, and I stepped between them, facing the man, and said, “Thank you, but there is no need to do that. I do not wish to fight. I am protected well.”
An elderly gentleman, well-dressed and also a Southerner, asked the police where they were taking me.
They said, “Nashville.”
“Don’t worry, son,” he said to me. “I’ll be there to see that you get justice.”
I was put into the back seat of the police car, between two policemen. Two others sat in front. During the thirteen-mile ride to town they called me every conceivable name and said anything they could think of to incite me to violence. I found that I was shaking with nervous strain, and to give myself something to do, I took out a piece of paper and a pencil, and began to write from memory a chapter from one of Paul’s letters.
When I had written a few sentences, the man on my right said, “What’re you writing?” and snatched the paper from my hand. He read it. then crumpled it into a ball and pushed it in my face. The man on the other side gave me a kick.
A moment later I happened to catch the eye of the young policeman in the front seat. He looked away quickly, and I took renewed courage from the realization that he could not meet my eyes because he was aware of the injustice being done. I began to write again, and after a moment I leaned forward and touched him on the shoulder. “My friend,” I said, “how do you spell ‘difference’?”
He spelled it for me – incorrectly – and I wrote it correctly and went on.
When we reached Nashville, a number of policemen were lined up on both sides of the hallway down which I had to pass on my way to the captain’s office. They tossed me from one to another like a volleyball. By the time I reached the office, the lining of my best coat was torn, and I was considerably rumpled. I straightened myself as best I could and went in. They had my bag, and went through it and my papers, finding much of interest, especially in The Christian Century and Fellowship.
Finally the captain said, “Come here, n*****.”
I walked directly to him.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
“N*****,” he said menacingly, “you’re supposed to be scared when you come in here!”
“I am fortified by truth, justice, and Christ,” I said. “There’s no need for me to fear.”
He was flabbergasted and, for a time, completely at a loss for words. Finally he said to another officer, “I believe the n*****’s crazy!”
They sent me into another room and went into consultation. The wait was long, but after an hour and a half they came for me and I was taken for another ride, across town. At the courthouse, I was taken down the hall to the office of the assistant district attorney, Mr. Ben West. As I got to the door I heard a voice, “Say, you colored fellow, hey! ” I looked around and saw the elderly gentleman who had been on the bus.
“I’m here to see that you get justice,” he said.
The assistant district attorney questioned me about my life, the Christian Century, pacifism, and the war for half an hour. Then he asked the police to tell their side of what had happened. They did, stretching the truth a good deal in spots and including several lies for seasoning. Mr. West then asked me to tell my side.
“Gladly,” I said, “and I want you” – turning to the young policeman who had sat in the front seat – “to follow what I say and stop me if I deviate from the truth in the least.”
Holding his eyes with mine, I told the story exactly as it had happened, stopping often to say, “Is that right?” or “Isn’t that what happened ?” to the young policeman. During the whole time he never once interrupted me, and when I was through I said, “Did I tell the truth just as it
And he said, “Well … ”
Then Mr. West dismissed me, and I was sent to wait alone in a dark room. After an hour, Mr. West came in and said, very kindly, “You may go, Mister Rustin.”
I left the courthouse, believing all the more strongly in the nonviolent approach. I am certain that I was addressed as “Mister” (as no Negro is ever addressed in the South ), that I was assisted by those three men, and that the elderly gentleman interested himself in my predicament because I had, without fear, faced the four policemen and said, “There is no need to beat me. I offer you no resistance.”
My dear friend and occasional collaborator, queer Northern Irish writer and activist Gareth Higgins, first introduced me to Bayard Rustin. He offers us this reflection:
Bayard Rustin was born on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, which is a happy coincidence, for he did something in his life that warrants if not sainthood, st least a parade in his honor. But given that probably his greatest achievement was managing the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, I’m not sure he really needs another parade. Some would say that Rustin was the person who taught Gandhian nonviolence and to Martin Luther King; if you watch the footage of the rally at the Lincoln Memorial, you might spot Rustin in the background, not taking an upfront role.
He didn’t get the public profile that his wisdom, experience and courage deserved, partly because of one other fact of his life. He was gay, and his sexuality was seen by some as a reason to keep his profile low. St. Patrick has become an excuse for kitsch parties, dyeing rivers green, and drinking to oblivion. That’s sad, because what St. Patrick really did was to champion the dignity of Irish people. At a time when most others considered us to be primitive, sub-human, or otherwise less-than, Patrick taught that we were worthy of the human dignity inherent in the teachings of Jesus. Whether or not you’re religious, such a teaching could be life-giving.
Bayard Rustin embodied just such a teaching: that at a time when his people were oppressed, he helped lead a movement centered on the dignity of all people. The humanity he called for was surely not unconnected to his experience as a gay man, whom others sought to marginalize not just for the color of his skin, but for whom he loved. On March 17th – coming up next week – I celebrate St Patrick, and Bayard Rustin: men who saw the healing of our most oppressed people as bound up with the healing of us all.
And next month, from April 27-30, I’ll be co-creating the third annual Movies & Meaning Festival for a long weekend of art, storytelling, and tooling up for social justice work and community healing. Over one weekend, participants will be inspired and challenged by artists, activists, and spiritual leaders who work at the intersection of creativity, peace, spirituality, and social change.
We’ll hear from Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple; Brian McLaren, author, activist, and theologian; Malidoma Somé, West African Elder and international teacher; Mona Haydar, poet and Muslim interfaith activist; and myself. My hope is that we’ll be reenergized by the brilliant diversity of human stories and experiences, and renewed in our work to undo suffering and oppression in all its forms—both inside and out.
Alice Walker says of the festival, “This is exactly what we should be doing. Unless we really start to fortify ourselves spiritually, and affirm who we are and what it is we really value, a lot of our energy is going to seep away in the froth of resistance, and we won’t be able to move very far. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the right thing to do. We are actually creating something that will have some strength.”
Want to spend time with us? Find out more here.
A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.
In the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Rustin practiced nonviolence. He was a leading activist of the early 1947–1955 Civil Rights movement, helping to initiate a 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge with civil disobedience racial segregation on interstate busing. He recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership, and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King’s leadership; Rustin promoted the philosophy of nonviolence and the practices of nonviolent resistance, which he had observed while working with Gandhi’s movement in India. Rustin became a leading strategist of the civil rights movement from 1955–1968. He was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was headed by A. Philip Randolph, the leading African-American labor-union president. Rustin also influenced young activists, such as Tom Kahn and Stokely Carmichael, in organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.