Bayard Rustin’s civil rights legacy

by Mchael P. Rellahan, Daily Local News, 8/24/13

His work helped galvanize MLK’s ideals in Chester County

WEST CHESTER — Without the supreme eloquence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March of Washington, D.C. — the 50th anniversary of which will occur Wednesday — the course of the civil rights movement in America might have been very different.

But without the tremendously successful organization of that event by Bayard Rustin, a behind-the-scenes worker known for bringing disparate groups together in common purpose, King’s speech might have fallen on fewer ears — or worse, been lost in a sea of criticism and recrimination over its disarray.

But even more than that, without the unique world of the West Chester that Rustin grew up in the first half of the 20th century — with its strange dichotomy of Quaker influence and Southern, Jim Crow-like racial segregation — he himself might not have held the burning desire to fight for equality in the country of his birth.

Or so say those who knew Rustin and his work, and who have championed his memory as one of the foremost figures in the history of the civil rights movement, among the most challenging of historical eras in the United States. Last week, some of those took time to discuss Rustin — his life, his work, and his legacy, with the Daily Local News.

“He was energized by people who were left out of our social order for no other reason than that they were considered unfit,” said C. James Trotman, a professor emeritus at West Chester University and founder of the Frederick Douglass Institute there. “That, he would not tolerate.”

Trotman agreed that the confluence of Quaker beliefs and first-hand experience with segregation led Rustin, who died in 1987 at the age of 75 in New York City, down the path his life took on the way to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as it was formally known.

As the architect of the march, Rustin saw to it that those attending had ways to get there, places to stay, food to eat, and that the area at the Lincoln Memorial was clean and spotless afterward. If there had been problems, the fight of legislation would have been made more difficult, Trotman said….

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