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“If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end.”– Bayard Rustin
Throughout history, innumerable African American leaders have fought to make a more inclusive and just world, and we all benefit greatly from the outcomes of their struggle. In recognition of Black History Month, we feel it is important to highlight several of these leaders and the profound ways in which their work has advanced the labor movement, promoted civil rights, and undeniably influenced our culture. We do this to draw attention to important people we didn’t learn about in school and to honor the ongoing work of African American leaders today – leaders like Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was a profoundly influential civil rights leader and lifelong defender of human dignity. He played a major role organizing events such as the first freedom rides, the 1941 and 1968 marches on Washington, and the creation of the Southern Leadership Conference. Moreover, having traveled to India in 1948 to learn directly from leaders of the Gandhian movement, he was one of the original teachers of non-violent philosophy and strategy in the civil rights movement. As a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., Rustin greatly influenced King’s adoption of non-violence.
After the passage of civil rights legislation in 1964-65, Rustin headed the AFL-CIO’s A. Phillip Randolph Institute, which advocated for the inclusion of black people in unions. He also served various humanitarian efforts throughout his life and publicly advocated for gay causes in the 1980’s.
Although he was forced to work in the background of movements because of his sexual orientation, Rustin’s legacy has become more widely-recognized in recent years. In 2013, he was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with President Obama noting that Rustin “fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad.”
To learn more about Bayard Rustin, check out these sources: