Bayard Rustin

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Bayard Rustin
Rustin speech enlarge.jpg

Born March 17, 1912
West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died August 24, 1987
Manhattan, New York
Religion Quaker

Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987) was a lifelong socialist, one-time Communist, homosexual activist, and personal secretary to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was instrumental in the United States' civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, and organized the 1964 "March on Washington."

Early life

Born into a Quaker family, Rustin had a comfortable childhood in West Chester, Pennsylvania. In the 1930s he dropped out of West Chester State College, moving to Harlem, where he sang in local clubs with African American folk artists Huddie Ledbetter and Josh White,[1] a loyal Stalinist.[2]

He studied at the City College of New York, which in the 1930s produced a large number of famous socialists, Trotskyites, fellow-travelers, Stalinists, and even some Soviet agents, including Julius Rosenberg.

CCNY had a well-deserved reputation in the 1930s as the nation's most radical campus. It featured both a Marxist Cultural Society and a very active branch of the Young Communist League. As at other colleges, there were two main political groupings at CCNY, but they weren't Democrats and Republicans. The major political tension on campus was between pro-Stalin Communists and a minority of Trotskyites. No American college came close to matching CCNY's level of activism until the upheavals of the late 1960s.[3]

Subversive Activities

In 1936, Rustin joined the Young Communist League, the youth wing of the Communist Party USA. “They seemed the only people who had civil-rights at heart,” he later explained. “The Party played a very active role in most civil-rights cases, like the Scottsboro case.”[4] Despite his claim that he was attracted to the Communists by their concern for civil rights, Rustin remained a party member throughout Stalin's bloody purges.

Despite his vaunted reputation as a Quaker pacifist, Rustin worked as a youth organizer for the CPUSA throughout the Nazi-Soviet pact and Hitler and Stalin's ensuing bloody joint invasion and division of Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and the Balkans. He didn't quit the party until 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, causing the party line to reverse, switching from attacking the US as racist to attacking African-American protestors as subverting the war effort.[5] As NAACP leader Roy Wilkins would recount in 1949:
Rustin in 1950
We of the NAACP remember that during the war when Negro Americans were fighting for jobs on the home front and fighting for decent treatment in the armed services we could get no help from the organizations on the extreme Left. They abandoned the fight for Negro rights on the grounds that such a campaign would "interfere with the war effort." As soon as Russia was attacked by Germany they dropped the Negro question and concentrated all effort in support of the war in order to help the Soviet Union. During the war years the disciples of the extreme left sounded very much like the worst of the Negro-hating Southerners.[6]


On October 25, 1946, Rustin was arrested in Harlem for commission of a lewd act. He was again arrested on January 21, 1953, in Pasadena, California, on a charge of sex perversion. He pleaded guilty to propositioning two males to engage in sodomy and admitted he had previously been arrested on the same charge in New York City. He was sentenced to 60 days.[7]

Work with Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1955, Rustin became personal secretary to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The following year. he introduced King to underground Communist Stanley Levison, who would become King's "most influential white counselor."[8] Levison was a contact of high-ranking KGB agent Victor Lessiovsky, who was in New York under cover as personal assistant to United Nations General Secretary U Thant.[9] Lessiovsky specialized in recruiting "Third World" peoples as Soviet assets.[10] In 1957, Rustin renewed his relationship with the Communist Party, when he attended the CPUSA's 16th National Party Congress by invitation.[11]

During the 1960s Rustin was a member[12] of the League for Industrial Democracy.[13] He would remain a member for years, and became vice president during the 1980s.[14]

Rustin and Tom Kahn were important organizers for the 1963 March on Washington.[15]

FBI Investigation

A secret Federal Bureau of Investigation memorandum reported that "reliable information" (FBI code for electronic surveillance) revealed that CPUSA National Secretary Benjamin Davis informed a meeting of the CPUSA National Committee in 1965 that he was maintaining liaison with Rustin.[16]


  1. Bayard Rustin (1910-1987): Civil Rights Leader & Political Organizer, Congress of Racial Equality
  2. During the Nazi-Soviet pact, "White ... lent his talents ... to the Almanac Singers' anti-draft album, Songs for John Doe (May, 1941).... On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded Soviet Russia, and the Hitler-Stalin pact-inspired anti-militarism of Songs for John Doe was forgotten." Josh White,
  3. Steven T. Usdin, Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley (Yale University Press, 2008) ISBN 0300127952, p. 10
  4. Thomas R. Brooks, Till Noon (Xlibris Corporation, 2009) ISBN 1477167110, p. 207
  5. Jerald Podair, Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 20080, ISBN 742564800, p. 17)
  6. Gilbert Jonas, Freedom's Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969 (Routledge, 2005) ISBN 1135930880, p. 144
  7. FBI file: Bayard Rustin, Part II, p. 127
  8. David J. Garrow, "The FBI and Martin Luther King," The Atlantic, July/August 2002
  9. John Barron, Operation Solo: The FBI's Man in the Kremlin (Regnery Publishing, 2013) ISBN 1621570991
  10. Samuel Francis, "Comrade King?," Chronicles, December 2, 2002
  11. John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Simon and Schuster, 2003) ISBN 0684827808, p. 251
  12. (1972) The Making of Black Revolutionaries. University of Washington Press, 220. 
  13. (1981) In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Harvard University Press, 29. 
  14. (1980) Workers' rights, East and West : a comparative study of trade union and workers' rights in Western democracies and Eastern Europe. Transaction Publishing / League for Industrial Democracy, 150. 
  15. Tom Kahn, Leader In Labor and Rights Movements, Was 53
  16. FBI file: Bayard Rustin, Part 1, p. 1.