Changing Change: Saint Bayard Rustin

Today, as I write this, it is National Coming Out Day.  It is fitting, then, that this week we will canonize Bayard Rustin.  He was, in many ways, the architect of the 20th century American protest movement.  In 1942, thirteen years before Rosa Parks, he refused to move to the back of a Louisville-to-Nashville bus.  He was arrested and beaten, but he did not fight back.  Instead, he tried to communicate to his attackers a message of peace rooted in the fertile ground of his Quaker faith and his Ghandhian training.  So, when Rosa Parks was arrested and the Montgomery boycott began, it was only natural that he go there to teach nonviolence to the flock of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

A funny thing happened when he arrived, however.  He thought he would show up and teach people the philosophy of pacifism and then action would arise out of that.  But the boycott was already a month in and things were afoot.  The white citizens of Montgomery had already promised violence in leaflets distributed at a rally opposed to the boycott: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead n—–s.” Rustin tells of visiting King’s apartment for the first time to find guns lying around everywhere.  It was a movement for change, a movement rooted in the African American church, but not a movement of nonviolence.  Fortunately, for us, for King, and for the civil rights movement, Rustin had seen for more than a decade that pacifism was not just opposition to war, but a way of being that erases division while resisting injustice.  If equality was to be won, it could not be at the end of a gun barrel.  Rustin shifted gears and taught the lessons of nonviolence in the midst of active protest.

Unfortunately, a not-so-funny thing happened to Bayard Rustin a few years before his trip to Montgomery.  He was gay, somewhat openly, at a time when it was illegal everywhere.  A gay man could be arrested for looking at another man wrong.  While in Pasadena on a tour sponsored by a Quaker pacifist organization, he was caught with two white men.  He was arrested and spent sixty days in jail.  At a time when everyone agreed that gay was not good, it made him toxic.  His opponents knew they could shame him, even arrest him at any time.  His friends and supporters in the movement shunned him, fearing guilt by association.  Coming to Montgomery was a redemption of sorts, an opportunity he would not have had if he had not been precisely who he was: a black man of faith who lived a life of nonviolent resistance.  There was no one else in America at the time who could speak of nonviolence to a black church filled with people so tired and angry and beaten down, that they were willing to do anything to get justice.  If not for Bayard Rustin, the history of civil rights in America would be quite different, but because of his sexuality, he has been virtually erased from our history, shoved back in the closet.

Although Rustin was not killed like Martin and Malcolm, he was still martyred.  He was never ashamed of his sexuality, but he was painfully aware of what it cost him.  I imagine a little part of him died each time his possibilities were curtailed.  He fought for justice across lines of race and class and international borders, but he never really imagined justice for that part of who he was until the final years of his life as the gay rights movement gained some traction in the 1980s.  Even then, he declined to identify himself as a leader of the movement, regretting his inability to come out on his own terms.  His final message: “Prejudice is of a single bit.”

There is much to be discussed in the life and career of Bayard Rustin.  For me, his status as a saint rests somehow on his sense of himself and his place in his world.  Rustin was a hybrid – a particular intersection of race and class and sexuality.  This posture of standing in multiple worlds allowed him to see the world as it really was, but also to see what might be.  The Christian notion of calling can be problematic, but Rustin seemed to know from an early age that he was destined for something and that something had to do with who he was particularly.  He overcame steep obstacles and never lost his integrity.  By committing himself to a way of being, he changed the way we think about change.  If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about this very modern saint.

Grace and Peace,

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