March 17, 2012 marks the centennial birthday of Bayard Rustin. He has been called the strategist of the American Civil Rights Movement and the pillar of that movement. His importance to the Civil Rights Movement has not been matched, however, by public awareness of his life and accomplishments. Rustin was gay and, although Rustin never concealed his gayness, historians now seem to concur that other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement concealed Rustin’s role as their colleague, because they did not believe that they could successfully organize for homosexual rights, as well as the rights of black people.
Since the late 1990s, a new generation of historians and also gay historians have begun to piece together Rustin’s life story by documenting it. Rustin’s own papers appear at the U.S. Library of Congress. At the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, researchers have combed the records of the pacifist organizations for which he worked. Scholars have also been looking through the papers of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons; (during World War II, Rustin served 28 months in a federal prison as a Conscientious Objector.) Researchers have also scoured Rustin’s FBI files, which contained 10,000 pages when he died (from appendicitis) at the age of 75. Of course, historians have also engaged in numerous conversations with Rustin’s friends, colleagues and critics.
What has been uncovered by Rustin scholars not only illuminates Rustin’s life but also establishes lost links to an early twentieth century civil rights movement in the United States, rooted in the political concerns that engaged debate during World War I : socialism, Woman’s Suffrage, pacifism, colonialism, South Africa, and India. See Raising Up a Prophet: the African-American Encounter with Gandhi.
During the past two years, in my role as Chair of the Communications Committee of this library, I have prepared three exhibits for our Reading Room concerning the Civil Rights Act of 1960. The first exhibit showed the political process that got the statute enacted. The second exhibit spotlighted six of the lesser-known activists whose bold actions created the environment in which Congress passed the legislation. The third exhibit featured the 13 brave black Hattiesburg, MS witnesses who testified in the first Voting Rights case brought
The second of these exhibits foregrounded Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin. I gave two talks at our law school about Baker and Rustin. Bayard Rustin generated weeks of comments and questions from our library’s readers, staff members and visitors.
It is the responsibility of the Communications Committee to make our library’s collection visible. Over the course of decades we have collected heavily in secondary works on the American Civil Rights Movement. To further fulfill our Committee’s commitment to visibility, we will soon be putting online the three Civil Rights exhibits we created during 2010 and 2011.
To celebrate Bayard Rustin’s Centennial, we will, in addition, be designing a web presence On the web presence we will post facsimiles of documents that show Rustin’s contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement. He will become visible, through these documents, as the Movement’s pacifist strategist.
In developing our Celebration of the Rustin Centennial we will be scheduling events on the Yale campus; creating reading lists; and reporting on events taking place elsewhere.