If I could, I would join Rustin and MLK Jr.

If you could be a part of any conversation, what would it be? For me it would have been the meeting that transpired when Bayard Rustin first came to the home of MLK Jr. At the time, King had yet to adopt nonviolence; in truth, it was Rustin who forced King and the movement to adopt a pacifist position. It was Rustin who traveled to India and studied the ways of Gandhi. That night when Rustin visited King’s home, which was then guarded by armed men, Rustin was turned away. Coretta Scott King asked Rustin into the home. King and Rustin stayed up well into the night smoking cigarettes and having drinks, while Rustin converted King. It was Rustin who organized King’s protest speech in DC, though he removed himself from the movement out of fear that he would hurt the movement due to being gay. Textbooks have not been kind to this wonderful man. I make an effort to celebrate Rustin with my students.

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6 thoughts on “If I could, I would join Rustin and MLK Jr.

  1. Dr. Carson, I enjoy reading your blog as a fellow history teacher and Bayard Rustin is certainly a fascinating figure, but I can’t help but quibble with your characterization of that meeting between Rustin and King. 1) I am not sure that it is accurate to say that he “converted” King to nonviolence. Perhaps it might be better to say that he “refined” King’s understanding of the practice of nonviolence. 2) I think it is a vast overstatement to say that Rustin “forced” the movement to nonviolence, given the fact that he was viewed by many as a liability due both to his sexuality and his earlier exploration of Communism. In addition, I think it is important to remember that many African Americans embraced nonviolence as a tactic rather than a philosophy. Robert Williams and the Deacons of Defense are a perfect example of that. 3) For me, the most important thing about that meeting is that Rustin’s presence in Montgomery provided a link between the growing protest movements in the South and the activist roots of the long civil rights movement.

    Best,
    James Lewis
    University School
    Cleveland, Ohio

  2. James, thank you for this very thoughtful comment. I see you are at US. That is an excellent day school. I blog so that I can get a few thoughts out while engaging with folks who do what I do. It is good to virtually meet you. My conclusion here was drawn in part due to a couple of biographical works on Rustin. I do see your point on “refined” rather than “converted” King. I use converted in a fashion to note that King was not philosophically engaged with this practice until Rustin. I view King as an actor of passive resistance, rather than a practitioner of non violence; hence, this point is why I like your use of the word “refined”.

    As for Rustin, I always viewed him as a star in the movement until about 1960, when Powell and others campaigned against his leadership. I most appreciated how Rustin saw the good of the many and the movement as something greater than himself.

    Though black folks were preaching passive resistance well before King, it is my understanding that it as a construct was not as pronounced until the late 1950s and early 60s with SNCC.

    • Dr. Carson, Thanks for replying. I am glad that you have heard of our small school out in Cleveland! I have been following your site for some time and I know that we crossed paths at POCC a couple of years ago, but I failed to reach out to you there. There’s a great article on the “long civil rights movement” by Ted DeLaney at Washington and Lee. It is about 10 pages and is pretty accessible for high school students. I found it on EBSCO and have used it to some success with my juniors.

      Best wishes for the start of the school year,
      James

  3. James, US has an outstanding reputation. It seems that most folks in the independent school world know about you folks. I am excited to learn that you have been following this blog. I am also pumped to learn that our paths have crossed. Will you be at the conference in Tampa this year? I suspect I will be, but I do not know yet. I am going to find that article and get back to you on it. Thanks for sharing. Best to you on the start of the year as well. Let us stay in touch.

  4. The documentary on PBS “Brother Outsider” is fantastic and folks can stream it for free. I watched it last night and agree textbooks have not been generous. I had never heard of him. I am so glad I have learned a little bit. It is refreshing and rejuvenating to see some peace and non-violence in what seems to be an increasing violent culture in the U.S.

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